‘Unfortunate Situation’ But No Ethics Violation

By Sally Absher

Last week the Knox County Schools Ethics Committee heard the complaint filed by Adam McKenry, Randy Susong, and Leonard Sams against Bearden High School principal Dr. John Bartlett, BHS Athletic Director Nathan Lynn, KCS Director of Facilities and Construction Doug Dillingham, and KCS Superintendent Dr. Jim McIntyre.

McKenry and Susong were treasurer and president, respectively, of the former BHS Softball Booster Club. Leonard Sams was the popular and highly effective softball coach who led BHS to the state tournament in 2015.

At the beginning of the meeting, Chairwoman Lynn Fugate asked the complainants McKenry, Susong, and Sams to lay out “specifically what ethical violation you believe has been perpetrated based on school board policy.”

A brief history: (See also this Focus article).  In 2014, BHS softball parents Susong and McKenry met with Bartlett and Lynn to get their support and assistance to facilitate constructing a softball practice facility at BHS. They initially planned to build the facility in stages, with each phase initiated as fundraising provided the money.

But Bartlett and Lynn informed them that KCS policy would not allow the facility to be built in stages. They suggested that a loan be secured in order to show that they had the funds on hand to complete the building. They told Susong and McKenry to re-establish the BHS Softball Boosters Club in order to conduct the fundraising. A $40K loan was secured by the Boosters, personally guaranteed by Susong and McKenry. Bartlett and Lynn brought the project to the BOE for approval in December 2014.

Neither Susong or McKenry felt they were at risk – under Coach Sams, the team had grown and improved beyond expectation, and they had a number of camps and other fundraising events with an estimated $21,000 in revenue lined up for the summer and fall. They were confident that the loan would be paid off within 18 – 24 months. They were repeatedly assured that Sams would coach the team.

Just prior to construction beginning, the Fire Marshall determined the construction site needed to be moved, adding $37K to the cost. The majority of the overage was absorbed by additional fundraising, donations of labor and materials, and even Coach Sams paying for labor out of his own pocket.

There was a dearth of communication between Bartlett, Dillingham, the Booster Club, and others regarding proper protocol and policy. There were forms that were not submitted or lost, and no mention of the need to obtain BOE approval of the new construction site or additional cost.  The facility was completed by the end of February 2015, with $44K still owed.

On June 3, after seven years of coaching softball at BHS and taking the team to State, Sams was fired by Bartlett – in spite of Susong having received verbal confirmation from Bartlett and Lynn that Sams would continue to lead the program. Sams agreed to “resign.”

Without a coach, a team could not be named. With everyone in the softball community in shock by the news, Bearden was unable to attract a qualified coach. Twelve of the fourteen returning players and three incoming players quit. Without a team, there was no Booster Club. Without a Booster Club, there was no fundraising. Susong and McKenry, as guarantors of the loan, are stuck paying $750 per month on the loan, with $30K currently outstanding.

The complaint contends that Bartlett, Lynn, Dillingham, and McIntyre intentionally lied and blatantly violated rules, procedures, and protocol. Had proper protocol been followed, the facility would have been built in stages as funds were raised. The loan would not have been allowed, and building construction declined due to lack of proper funding on a second approval process. McIntyre should have declined approval of the building as well.

McKenry stated that Bartlett, Lynn, Dillingham, and McIntyre violated BOE Code of Ethics Policy B-220 under Misuse of Public Position, which states “No public officer of county employee shall corruptly use or attempt to use his or her official position or any property or resource which may be within his or her trust, or perform his or her official duties, to secure a special privilege, benefit or exemption for himself, herself, or others.”

Certainly BHS benefited. They have a fabulous indoor practice facility for their softball team, which without the leadership of Coach Sams, finished the 2016 season with a 3-29 record, including sixteen double-digit losses. Other BHS teams have expressed interest in using the facility as well. But at whose expense did Bearden benefit?

During the complainant’s testimony, McIntyre was overheard saying to the person sitting next to him, “Can you believe this sh*t?” Stay classy, Jim. You’ve only a month to go…

Petulant, defensive, and clearly agitated, McIntyre spoke for the defendants, saying, “This is an unfortunate situation … but I have to say I resent the tone and the implications of the presentation that we just heard. I believe the complaint brought before you is completely without merit, and should be summarily dismissed.”

A leader would accept responsibility and work to find solutions – not demonize the people who believe they have been wronged.

He added, “I believe there are several questionable assertions in the complaint that has been filed. But even if every word of it is true, the actions alleged in the complaint would not constitute a violation of the Knox County BOE Code of Ethics as defined in Policy B-220.” He requested that the Ethics Committee take action to dismiss the “unfortunate and unfounded complaint.”

Dillingham used the “dog ate my homework” excuse to respond to allegations of missing forms by saying there was a “technical glitch” and that a form FA-100 had been submitted by Bartlett, he just could not print it out. But the complaint packet included an email from Dillingham dated January 29 2016 stating, “An FA-100 form was not submitted.”

Bartlett and Lynn did not speak during the hearing, although Bartlett later told WBIR news, “We really want this paid off. I don’t want them carrying that debt and so we’re willing to work with them any way we can.”

The Ethics Committee struggled to find evidence of a violation of the Code of Ethics. Apparently KCS only considers criminal offenses to be ethics violations. The questions at times seemed to make Susong and McKenry the criminals – although the only “crime” they committed was to trust the advice and recommendations of school officials.  Terry Hill asked if administration told the Booster Club they had to get a loan, and McKenry said no, but they were told it was OK to do it this way.

Fugate asked what she called the million dollar question:

“If Coach Sams had not been let go, would you be here today saying this is an ethical violation forcing you to do something you didn’t want to do?”

Susong replied, “Whether Coach Sams was let go or not, if it was done differently, and handled to where they came to us or said we know you have to fund this, and how are we going to do this together…it probably would have worked.”

Fugate, Hill, and Amber Rountree concurred they understood the frustration over the way things were handled, but stressed that the ethics committee is bound by the Board Code of Ethics which is very narrow in scope.

Fugate, who every once in a while speaks truth to power, said, “I don’t think you’re the only case that’s ever happened to in the history of Knox County Schools building things, I think this may be the only case where it all blew up and the organization didn’t continue to fundraise to make those who put their name on the dotted line whole again. It would be my hope that the Bearden family, with the Bearden Foundation and the Bearden PTA (etc.) could come together and help do this, because I do believe that the larger Bearden community benefits, like every school does, when these kinds of facilities are built.”

She made a motion to dismiss the ethics complaint because it does not meet the definition of an ethics violation based on Knox County BOE Policy B-220. All members voted aye. Fugate reiterated, “I really, really hope we can get some folks together and get this paid off.”

Perhaps the Board chairman could lead the way. Susong and McKenry are still waiting for the check Doug Harris promised he would write when he met with the Bartlett, Lynn, and Booster officers on June 22, 2015.

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