Payson Unified School District Superintendent Ron Hitchcock must start over on his attempt to discipline Julia Randall Elementary Principal Will Dunman for “insubordination.”
After an emotionally charged meeting on Monday, the school board directed Hitchcock to start over “from step one per policies” to impose a one-week suspension on Dunman after the district’s lawyer confirmed the superintendent had not followed procedure.
In Tuesday’s paper, the Roundup incorrectly reported the board had upheld Dunman’s suspension. That account was based on incorrect statements made by a school official after the meeting.
An overflow crowd attended Monday’s meeting, the third board meeting at which issues relating to Dunman have been debated.
At issue is Dunman’s disagreement with the board’s direction to Hitchcock to prevent administrators from also serving as coaches and therefore receiving stipends.
Dunman’s lawyer, Gary Lassen, of Mesa, said Hitchcock failed to follow personnel procedures, which would require a letter notifying Dunman of the proposed suspension, a hearing and a second letter after the hearing notifying him results of the hearing.
The board did receive two letters at the meeting — one from Hitchcock informing Dunman of his decision and the second from Dunman appealing the decision.
Neither Hitchcock nor Dunman would reveal the contents of their letters or comment for this article.
In his testimony to the board on Monday, Hitchcock related a series of events that led to his decision starting from the moment he was hired.
“When I applied for a job in this district, I reviewed the job description (and) I was given a contract that delegated/assigned/told me what I needed to do — and then I met with my supervisor, which is a five-headed supervisor, known as a board, and said, what are the other duties you would have me do?”
At that time, he said the board gave him a “lengthy list of things to accomplish that would be reviewed.”
The board insisted upon a quarterly evaluation of Hitchcock’s progress in implementing the list, rather than the typical yearly review, said the superintendent.
The list included codifying what he had to do to keep administrators from acting as and receiving stipends for coaching, said Hitchcock.
Hitchcock said the district wasn’t supposed to let administrators coach, but the rule had been widely ignored for years. He said “one of the list of things I had to do was make sure that that would stop.”
So, last fall, Hitchcock discussed the issue with his leadership team, which includes principals and directors.
Then, at the February meeting, Hitchcock said he again discussed this new expectation.
“And in the context of that leadership meeting ... I literally spoke the individual’s name, that it referred to because that individual was the only one that expressed concern that that was going to happen,” said Hitchcock. “So I said, ‘Mr. Dunman, that means that next year you won’t be coaching.’”
Hitchcock then said he had numerous other conversations with Dunman on the topic, but heard through others that Dunman had no intention of vacating his coaching spot.
Hitchcock said it got so intense, Dunman would walk out of leadership meetings when the subject was raised.
In January, board members started pressuring Hitchcock to post Dunman’s coaching position. Hitchcock said he still had to work on getting Dunman to relinquish the position.
“Then I went through the appropriate sources and went to the administrators and said, ‘Please make this happen so that it does not become a distraction’ — obviously that failed,” said Hitchcock.
Soon after, the first of the packed board meetings started.
At the Aug. 26 meeting, 10 people testified and the attendees called the board members “stupid” and interrupted when they spoke.
Hitchcock said he thought that meeting reflected poorly on the district, the board, the community and the athletic department.
At the Sept. 6 meeting, only one teacher spoke on Dunman’s behalf, but the board decided not to impose an outright ban on administrators coaching and instead gave the superintendent the authority to decide if an administrator could also coach.
Hitchcock said he then had a hearing with Dunman during which the principal admitted although he knew about the change in district sentiment toward administrators as coaches, he had nonetheless participated in the Aug. 26 meeting.
Hitchcock said when he asked Dunman what he thought he would accomplish from that meeting, Dunman said, “I thought I was advocating for myself.”
Hitchcock said after that hearing he decided Dunman had been insubordinate and moved to discipline the principal for violating policies GEBA and GCQ. These policies cover “unprofessional conduct and acts of insubordination.”
The policy also requires administrators to apply the policy in a “reasonable” way. The policy gives the employee the right to a hearing within two to 10 days of giving the employee a notice of the disciplinary action, followed by another letter within two to 10 days of the decision.
After Hitchcock spoke, Dunman’s lawyer responded. “Under the policy that appears to be an Arizona School Board Association policy, you give notice to the affected employee, and then ... there was reference to a hearing. There was no hearing,” said Lassen. “There was a delivery of the discipline letter with two other witnesses present.”
Lassen said Hitchcock violated due processes. “... what I’m saying is there is no policy in place at this date that has been violated — there is no hearing that has occurred,” said Lassen. “He talks about, well, there are third parties, that is basic due process. In 30 years, I have never ever, ever recommended to a school board to suspend an administrator including a principal, without pay. It’s absurd. It’s arbitrary. And that is an additional grounds for appeal.”
As he continued to speak, Lassen’s voice rose until he finally lifted the top part of the podium off and banged it down.
School board member Rory Huff had enough at that point.
“Sir, I’m going to ask you to address us with some form of civility,” said Huff. “... just talk to us, don’t preach to us.”
Lassen finished with an apology and an appeal to follow existing policy concerning discipline.
After an executive session with its lawyer, the board returned to ask Hitchcock to follow policy GCQF correctly by writing a letter informing Dunman of the hearing.