Lauderdale school system’s settlement payment revealed

Published 4:50 pm Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Former Southeast Elementary Principal Joey Knight received $100,000 from the Lauderdale County School District as part of a settlement in his lawsuit against Superintendent David Little.

“That money would have otherwise been used for the students and was taken away from them to pay the settlement,” Little said of the settlement. “We don’t budget for lawsuits, so that money had to come out of the general fund of last year’s budget.”

Little, in a article, said the district payment was only a part of the money Knight received in the settlement. He said the school system’s insurance company paid the remainder.

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Minutes from the May 17 school board meeting show some of the damages sought by Knight were excluded from insurance coverage. Those damages included emotional distress, wrongful termination and lost wages.

Little said the judge in the federal lawsuit ordered him not to disclose the amount that was paid by the county’s insurance company.

Knight filed the lawsuit in 2006 to recover actual and punitive damages for alleged violation of his First Amendment rights. His contract was not renewed in February 2006.

Knight, a Republican, challenged Little, then a Democrat, in the 2003 election for the position of Lauderdale County superintendent. Knight claimed his decision to exercise his First Amendment rights by running for office resulted in retaliation against him, his wife Denise and the schoolchildren of Lauderdale County.

Knight, now headmaster of Russell Christian Academy, could not immediately be reached for comment.

The county school board approved the $100,000 payment in an executive session at its May meeting. The meeting’s minutes last week became public record after receiving approval from the board.

Little, now a Republican, is currently serving his 12th year as county superintendent. He faces former county superintendent Randy Hodges in the Aug. 7 Republican primary. The winner of that race will meet independent candidate Lamar Johnson in the Nov. 6 general election.

Little said he learned many lessons from the lawsuit. He said he took the board attorney’s advice about how to handle the Knight situation when it was determined Knight was not improving student test scores at Southeast.

“When you have good people who are not doing a good job, you have to do something,” Little said. “We offered to transfer him to West Lauderdale as a lead teacher, but he said he was going to fight it.”

Little said his decision was never an act of retaliation. He said scores from this year’s Mississippi Curriculum Test are in and it appears that Southeast Elementary will remain a Level 3, or successful, school.

“But now we have an administration with high expectations, that are supervising teachers with respect to the Mississippi framework and I feel test scores next year likely will bump the school up to a Level 4 achievement,” he said.