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WATER VALLEY – The Water Valley School District Board of Trustees will determine the fate of Davidson Elementary School (DES) Principal James Watson in the coming weeks after he was recommended for dismissal by Superintendent Jerry Williams.
Watson was removed from duty by the superintendent on October 5 and requested an employment hearing. The grueling, six-hour hearing was held on Nov. 3 and included testimony from Williams and DES Assistant Principal Melinda Allen about allegations relating to academic growth, failure to collaborate with teachers and assistant principals at the school and other issues cited during the hearing including results from a survey sent to school faculty.
Per protocol for a mid-year termination hearing, members of the Water Valley school board were not present during the hearing and instead will vote on Watson’s employment in an upcoming board meeting after reviewing a transcript of the testimony from the hearing and the hearing officer’s report. Watson will also address school board members before a final decision is made.
Watson requested the hearing remain open to the public and represented himself, asking questions during cross examination of Williams and Allen to present his defense. The hearing started with Allen fielding questions from Elizabeth Moran, an attorney hired by the school for representation on the matter.
Allen’s testimony centered on allegations cited in the termination report including failure to collaborate with assistant principals to improve state test scores, failure to meet with assistant principals to identify and develop a plan of growth for students who scored in the bottom 25 percent on state testing during the 2022-2023 school year and failure to meet with administration to discuss teacher observations, along with concerns about instruction and planning.
Allen testified that Watson had failed to meet with assistant principals and teachers about students’ performance on state testing and how to use the data from last year’s state testing to work with students who scored in the bottom 25 percent. She also testified that she and Assistant Principal Lee Gray were provided conflicting instructions from Watson about performing teaching observations and conducting PLC (Professional Learning Community) meetings.
“At first we were told we had to do lots of observations, to be in the classrooms all the time. We were told if we weren’t in the classroom, the teachers were lazy,” Allen said.
Allen said that both she and Gray had over 50 observations in the opening weeks of school before Watson said they had entered enough.
“One day he would tell us to do observations and then not to do them,” Allen continued.
Responding to questions from the school’s attorney, Allen also stated that there were visibility and communication issues with the principal.
“Communication makes employees feel valuable and to be visible on the campus, that makes people feel safe. When you don’t have communication and you don’t have visibility, you have what I call a broken circle of safety,” she stated. “This created a toxic environment at DES. In my 23 years of education, I have never seen anything like it.”
“What has changed since Mr. Watson has been recommended for this employment action and is no longer there?” Maron asked.
“I hate to say it because I like him as a person, but it is like a cloud of oppression has left the school. Parents have commented on it, teachers have commented on it,” Allen answered.
Allen also testified that there were non-administrative staff present including the receptionist, school counselor and mental health therapist during the few administrative meetings at DES. She also said that her privileges for her and Assistant Principal Lee Gray to email staff members at the school were restricted by Watson, and use of the copying machine by the assistant principals was restricted.
During cross examination by Watson, Allen testified that the three principals – Watson,
Allen and Gray – met during a meeting on June 20 to talk about the students who scored in the bottom 25 percent on state testing. The line of questioning from Watson about the administrative meetings at the elementary school was prevalent during much of the hearing as he countered the claims cited in the termination.
“On June 20, we did meet about math scores, right?” Watson asked.
“We crunched the numbers, yes on June 20, an unplanned meeting,” Allen answered.
Watson questioned Allen about additional administrative meetings including one on Sept. 18 and another on Sept. 25 to discuss different topics, again countering the claims cited for his termination.
“Do you recall us talking about our score updates?” Watson asked?
“Yes,” Allen answered.
Responding to Watson’s question, Allen said the September team meetings included addressing safety and behavior plans, PLCs and other topics pertaining to the problems cited for the principal’s dismissal.
As Watson’s line of questions came to a close, he asked Allen if she still felt like the alleged failures cited in his termination were accurate.
“Absolutely,” Allen said.
“Did we do those five things?” Watson asked about the accusations of not collaborating with assistant principals and other items stated earlier in the testimony.
“Late, too late, and some not at all,” Allen answered.
Watson then returned to the June 20 meeting when one of the most frequent accusations was discussed, addressing the needs of students who scored in the bottom 25 percent on state testing.
“So we did discuss the bottom 25 (percent)?” Watson asked about that meeting when the three principals met.
“We did not discuss a plan of action for the bottom 25 (percent), which is the point of identifying the bottom 25,” Allen said.
Williams was next to testify and the line of questions referenced documentation he gathered during the first nine weeks of school. The questioning by Maron started with steps taken by Watson to collaborate with teachers and assistant principals on the math scores for state testing.
“Who was responsible for math teachers?” Maron asked.
“Mr. Watson, he was a past math teacher,” Williams answered.
The attorney asked Williams what steps he had taken to determine if the math teachers had been instructed by Watson for improvements.
“I sent out emails to math teachers in third through sixth grades and got responses from all of them that there had been no meetings,” Williams explained. He added that math scores from state testing and directives on helping the students improve should have been presented to teachers at the very start of the school year. The superintendent also testified that there had been no plan of action on how to address the performance of students who scored in the bottom 25 percent for math, ELA (English, language arts) and science scores from the 2022-2023 Mississippi Academic Assessment Program (MAAP) testing.
“Since Mr. Watson has been not been in the leadership in the elementary school, have you learned any other information about the state of instruction?” Maron asked.
“We were nine weeks behind,” Williams answered.
The superintendent cited an August 16 meeting with Watson and High School Principal Drew Pitcock to discuss specific directives for PLCs, teacher observations and data examination as well as visibility.
“Make it a point to speak to everyone every day,” Williams testified about his instructions to Watson and Pitcock. “Be in your classrooms every week, your tested ones more than that.”
“What did you tell them about your approach this year?” Maron asked.
“I told them that we are going to have these meetings and I was going to document what we were doing and what wasn’t being done, and I recommended that they do the same,” Williams answered.
Williams then testified about documentation he had gathered from the start of the school year.
“I started finding out the math teachers were not having PLCs,” Williams said. “At one of our next meetings, I told (Watson) it was required and you have to give me the minutes and agenda from those PLC meetings.”
Next Williams testified that during his frequent trips to the elementary school, Watson was not visible.
“I would be over there a couple of times a day. More often than not, I would not see him,” Williams said.
The superintendent also said he attended a parent meeting at the school on Sept. 12 and did not see Watson.
“In the 30 to 40 minutes that I was there, I never saw him. He should have been out talking with teachers and parents,” he said.
Williams said that Watson missed a Title One meeting on Sept. 25, a meeting that the principal’s duties included a presentation for attendees.
Another incident cited by the superintendent was a medical emergency on the campus.
“I was making my rounds and happened to be walking in the building and saw the ambulance… I stayed there the whole time and Mr. Watson never made an appearance, he was in his office the whole time,” Williams said.
Watson testified that his directive to perform teacher observations was not followed and by late September, Pitcock had performed almost 100 more observations than Watson.
Next Williams testified about a survey sent out to teachers to allow anonymous input.
“I wanted to see how the teachers felt about the culture and what was going on in their buildings. We created a survey and pushed it out to the high school and elementary campuses,” the superintendent explained.
Williams statements about the survey included that almost 64 percent of the teachers at DES felt like the principal was not visible during the day and over 72 percent of the teachers did not believe discipline was handled appropriately.
Other highlights of the survey reported by Williams included low morale, with 52.8 percent of the respondents reporting that they would not sign a contract for the next school year.
“Did you talk with Mr. Watson about the survey results?” Maron asked.
“They saw the diagram, but I didn’t show them the comments,” Williams said about the survey results shared with both principals.
Other testimony by Williams included a conversation documented with a teacher about a discipline issue involving Watson threatening use of corporal punishment. The superintendent explained that Watson had asked a student to “touch the paddle,” and when the student refused several times, Watson slammed the paddle on the desk.
“This was unacceptable, we are talking about a four-year-old,” Williams said.
“Do y’all have a policy regarding corporal punishment?” Maron asked.
“We don’t allow it any more,” Williams said.
“What does it say on here,” Maron asked as the paddle was presented as evidence during the hearing.
“DES attitude adjustment,” Williams responded. “The teacher said this was not the first time she had witnessed Mr. Watson slam a paddle down (on the desk) while disciplining a student.”
Williams continued to testify about documentation cited in the termination indicating weekly PLCS were not conducted at the elementary school, failure to communicate important dates with teachers, failure to provide a teacher retention plan and safety protocol issues involving fire drills and lockdowns and failure to produce a teacher retention plan.
“What about teacher retention, what did you ask him to do?” the attorney asked.
“At the elementary school during the last couple of years, we had a large turnover. We had a large turnover at the high school this past year. I wanted (the principals) to develop a plan for teacher retention to make sure we don’t have a large turnover again,” Williams said.
Williams said that the schools are required to have a monthly fire drill, a lockdown drill each semester and tornado drills.
“We had not had any drills at DES,” Williams said.
“What is the date of that documentation?” Maron asked.
“October 16, 2023,” Williams answered.
“Is there anything else you would like to tell the school board regarding your decision to terminate Mr. Watson’s contract in the fall of the school year?” Maron asked.
“I didn’t want to go here, I didn’t want to end up in a dismissal. But I felt that we had gotten so far behind that I had to. We just need to get back on track and I didn’t think Mr. Watson was going to be able to do that,” Williams said.
Watson’s Cross Examination
Watson first questioned the responsibilities of stakeholders regarding morale in the school district.
“In regard to low morale, what role does the superintendent play in morale?” Watson asked.
“I don’t think I am responsible for teachers’ morale. The principal is responsible for everything that goes on in the school building,” Williams said.
“Do other parties play a role in the morale of a school district?” Watson continued.
“Everybody plays a role in the morale of the school district, but it all goes back to your leader,” Williams answered.
“Can you name each stakeholder who plays a part in morale?” Watson asked.
“All of your teachers and administrators,” Williams said.
“Do you think the students, the central office staff, you, the superintendent, can all play a part in morale?” Watson asked.
“Yes,” Williams said.
Next Watson shifted to the communication between Williams and the two assistant principals at DES – Allen and Gray.
“Have you had any discussions with me about any concerns that Mr. Gray or Ms. Allen have, prior to me asking you to speak with me in the office?” Watson asked.
“No, because I told them that they need to come to you with their concerns,” Williams stated.
“Are you aware that they had not come to me at all until I found out from you that they had concerns with me?” Watson asked.
“I didn’t know,” Williams answered.
“Would you feel that it is fair to get one side of the story and automatically assume that the other side is guilty?” Watson asked.
“I don’t see where I have made a decision on taking a side, but to answer your question I would say no,” Williams responded.
Watson then shifted to Allen’s testimony, asking the superintendent if he felt like she backtracked on her statements about failure to collaborate on the pertinent issues.
Williams testified that Allen may have not been clear on the dates of the administrative meetings.
“Do you count June 20 as a collaboration, me collaborating with the assistant principals on the MAAP scores?” Watson asked.
“Yes,” Williams said.
“Failure to meet with assistant principals to identify bottom 25 (percent)?” Watson asked.
“Yes,” Williams replied.
“Failure to meet with administration to discuss observations and concerns?” Watson continued.
“Yes” Williams said.
“Are you agreeing these things did not happen?” Watson asked.
“Yes” Williams said.
“But the question was, these things did happen,” Watson stated.
“I heard her testify that these things happened, but one time in June is not acceptable. Y’all went over the bottom 25, you put them in order,” Williams said about identifying the students who scored in the bottom 25 percent on MAAP testing. “But you had one meeting, a conversation with them in June.”
“Let’s not stick to the number of times right now, but to the facts,” Watson countered.
Watson then asked about a teacher meeting off campus.
“Are you aware that a group of teachers met at the park regarding issues with me?” Watson asked.
“No,” Williams answered.
“Did you instruct the teachers to come up with some things about me as a leader?” Watson continued.
“No,” Williams answered.
Watson then asked about the survey, asking who provided input for the questions.
“Mrs. (Cathy) True created it, but I gave her all the topics of the survey,” Williams said.
“So no teachers had a part in creating the survey?” Watson asked.
“No,” Williams answered.
Watson also asked the superintendent about the evidence about his failure to collaborate with teachers and administrators to ensure success.
“You noted that it was not done based on what evidence?” Watson asked.
“Conversations with teachers and administrators,” Williams said.
The superintendent also cited responses from an email sent to math teachers that PLCs had not been done.
“That is still one side of the story?” Watson asked.
“Yes,” Williams agreed.
“Have you specifically asked me if I have collaborated with administrators and teachers to ensure success?” Watson continued.
“No, I have not,” Williams answered.
“So is it fair to say that I didn’t have the opportunity to give my side, but you listed it as not done? Had we talked, would I have had the opportunity to present you with documentation that I did meet with my teachers and administrators?” Watson asked.
“Yes, you would have,” Williams answered.
“Is it fair to say that I haven’t been asked any of these questions directly, face-to-face like you had with teachers and administrators?” Watson asked.
“Other than our weekly principal meetings when we talked about all this stuff,” Williams said.
“I am talking about these questions directly?” Watson asked.
“Correct,” Williams answered.
Watson also asked if the assistant principals told Williams that they had five administrative meetings to discuss items cited in the superintendent’s dismissal allegations.
“They have stated that y’all have met with the other faculty members,” Williams said, a reference to meetings with non-administrative faculty. “That is not an admin meeting, that may be a leadership meeting.”
“Did Ms. Allen not state that the three of us met on August 30, just us three?” Watson asked about an administrative meeting that only included the principal and two assistant principals.
“Yes, she did,” Williams answered.
Watson then asked about Williams statements he made that the principal was responsible for day-to-day operations of the school.
“Do you remember when you told me to move a table from a room and make it a tutoring room?” Watson asked.
“I remember telling you that,” Williams answered.
“Is that a day-to-day operation of the school, or is that your decision to make?” Watson asked.
“I have the authority to step in if I see something that is a distraction. I thought that room was a distraction. We have a teacher’s lounge for teachers to eat lunch. I didn’t think it was appropriate to hang out in a classroom, that is why I made that decision. I’m not responsible for every day things, but I can make a decision,” Williams said.
Watson then asked about the survey, first asking the superintendent if he was aware that some teachers no longer employed with the district received the email and other new teachers did not receive the email with the survey link.
“It is possible, but I am not aware of it,” Williams answered.
Watson also asked if 36 responses from teachers or assistant teachers out of approximately 80 employed at DES was an accurate representation of the entire school.
“No, because the entire school did not fill it out,” Williams answered.
Watson then asked if the superintendent instructed for his email account to be deleted.
“I did,” Williams answered.
“How soon?” Watson asked.
“It was that afternoon,” Williams said, a reference to the day the principal was terminated.
Watson’s line of questions also included a meeting on August 14 when he shared a complaint made against the superintendent.
“Are you aware that a complaint was made against you on August 14?” Watson asked.
“Yes,” Williams answered.
“Who notified you?” Watson asked.
“You did,” Williams said.
“And our first meeting occurred on what date?” Watson continued.
“August 16,” Williams said.
“Are you aware that our meetings started two days after a complaint was made against you?” Watson asked.
“Yes. You said she came by and wanted to file a complaint with you because I pointed at her because she is black. That you felt you needed to get it off your plate because you were her supervisor, and that is why you reported it to me,” Williams said.
“A complaint was made on August 14, we began having meetings on August 16. Do you feel like I played a part in the complaint against you?” Watson asked.
“No,” Williams said.
“Does the complaint play any role in my dismissal,” Watson asked.
“No,” Williams said
Watson then asked about prior employees Williams had terminated, and if he recalled how many were white and how many were black.
Williams answered that he recalled four, three white and one black.
“Is that opposite?” Williams asked about possible three blacks and one white. “I am talking about people terminated under your leadership at Water Valley.”
“I can’t remember an accurate number,” Williams stated.
Watson also asked about the district’s code of ethics, questioning the superintendent about possible chain of command violations when teachers or assistant principals talked to the superintendent about Watson’s performance.
“Did the teachers violate the chain of command by coming to you before coming to me with an issue?” Watson asked.
“I am going to say no, because they have the right to talk with me,” Williams said. “I told them to go through their chain of command.”
The hearing ended after Watson called one witness to testify, an employee at DES. This portion of the hearing was closed because the testimony involved statements about other employees at DES.