County school board asks for Penton resignation

Published 1:37 pm Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Pearl River County school board on Tuesday night voted 3 to 2 to adopt a motion requesting that school superintendent Dennis E. Penton resign, citing “personnel and accountability issues.”

The move came after some parliamentary maneuvering by board members to amend the agenda and get the item covering the issue on the agenda.

In making a motion asking Penton to resign, board member Sherwin Taylor said that he was making the request based on “personnel and accountability issues.”

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However, during the whole process, no specific issues were brought out and discussed by the board. Penton said nothing during the whole matter.

Newly appointed board member Bonnie Sanders seconded Taylor’s motion.

However, it is not easy to remove Penton, probably impossible until the next election, even if the board votes to do so or wants to do so. He is an elected official, just like each member of the board.

Even what the board did was hard to put a label on, whether it was a censure or a vote of no confidence. School board attorney Nathan Farmer said you could term it a resolution, “if you want to call it that.” He added that it had no legal binding on Penton.

All five members of the county school board are elected from districts within the school district, and Penton is elected by a district wide vote.

Together, they run the Pearl River Central School District, which serves mostly the area surrounding Carriere and McNeill.

The board is only school board in the county composed entirely of elected members. Picayune and Poplarville’s municipal school boards are mostly appointed by the city councils and the school boards appoint the superintendents of those districts.

Board members Taylor, Sanders, and Michelle Boyd voted to ask for Penton’s resignation and board chairman Jeff Jones and board member Margie Creel voted no, against the request.

There were about 40 people in the audience observing the actions of the board, but they said nothing.

The board went through a series of moves and motions at the start of the session to get Taylor’s motion onto the agenda. In order for items to be discussed and a decision made, they must be on the agenda.

After several moves, the “issue concerning the superintendent” as it was termed, was pushed into the agenda as item 7A.

When item 7A came up, Taylor said, “I am asking for his resignation at this time on account of personnel and accountability issues.” Sanders seconded the motion.

Jones then asked for questions and discussions from the board.

After about 30 seconds of silence, Jones asked board attorney Nathan Farmer for his legal opinion on the matter.

“It is my opinion that the board can make a motion and vote on it, but given the fact that Mr. Penton is an elected superintendent, this board has no authority to remove him under the law,” said Farmer.

“It will be more in line with a resolution, if you want to call it that, but it has no binding, legal authority,” Farmer added.

“That’s the way the State Legislature set it up. If he were not elected, if he were appointed, then the board would have the authority to hire and fire him,” said Farmer. “So from a legal standpoint, if the motion carries, it has no legal binding authority on Mr. Penton.”

“Whether or not he resigns, is his decision and his alone,” Farmer said.

Jones then asked for a show of hands, and the vote was 3 to 2 in favor of requesting Penton to resign.

Asked if what had occurred had any legal implications for Penton, Farmer said he did not think so. He also said it was similar to a “vote of no confidence, if you want to look at it that way.”

Penton, asked if he would resign since the resolution went against him and was sort of like a vote of “no confidence,” said emphatically, “No.”

The board then moved on to the next agenda item, and nothing else was said about the matter for the remainder of the meeting. The board went into executive session at the end of the meeting to discuss personnel and student matters, and then adjourned to Jan. 7 at 6:30 p.m., its next scheduled meeting.

However, the board can call emergency meetings between now and then by posting a public notice on the board room door one hour before that session is held.

The board also, led by Sanders, Boyd and Taylor, questioned Penton repeatedly about personnel appointments and rejected several personnel moves under the discussion on personnel matters.

The vote for rejection on several personnel matters was 2-2 with Taylor abstaining. Jones and Creel voted for the changes and Boyd and Sanders voted against them. It would have taken a 3-2 vote to approve the changes.

The board also wanted to discuss the 7-item personnel agenda one item at a time, instead of lumping the approval of the personnel changes into one overall vote.

Sanders also raised with Penton an issue about “board policies.”

“We govern here by board policy. I have asked for a policy book or guidelines, and I have been told they are out-of-date. How are we going to do our job and govern, if we don’t even have anything concerning policy?” asked Sanders, who was named to the board recently to fill the unexpired term of Byron Stockstill who resigned on Aug. 12. She was appointed by fellow board members until an election can be held to fill Stockstill’s unexpired term.

Also in the audience was Twila Crabtree, the newly elected board member, who was elected in November by unseating incumbent District 5 board member Creel. Creel’s term comes to an end on Dec. 31, and Crabtree will be sworn in at the first regular January meeting.

The entire complexion and make-up of the board has changed in the last several months. There are two new members.

Said Penton in reply to Sanders about board policy, “Well, we do have policies. Have you been by the office to get one?”

“Yes,” said Sanders.

“At the last two board meetings I asked for it,” she said.

“I will have you one tomorrow,” said Penton.

Sanders said she wanted the “policies” placed on the agenda for the next session so they can be discussed. “I don’t know what the policies are. I can tell you, I can’t get a copy of them, but I don’t know what they are,” she told the board and Penton.

Said Penton, “You didn’t ask me; you needed to ask me (for a copy of the board policies).”

Replied Sanders, “Yes, I asked you.” Sanders then moved that the board policies be placed on the agenda next month for discussion. The motion carried unanimously.

In other matters, the board:

— Approved the minutes for the Nov. 2 and 11 meetings.

— Presented Creel a service plaque for her service during her term as a board member.

— Heard the superintendent’s report.

— Approved the financial reports.

— Approved cancellation of a 16th section land lease on five acres in 16-6-16 for nonpayment of fees; approved site preparation for burning on 16-4-17 and 16-6-16 and approved thinning slash pine plantation on 74 acres of 16-5-16.

— Approved donations of $900 to the elementary principal’s fund from the PRC parent volunteers booster club to help purchase accelerated reader prizes and attendance prizes for students and $100 to the PRC school district from First Southern Bank for snacks on H1N1 day.

— Adjourned to Jan. 7 at 6:30 p.m.