DeAnna McClendon knew there was an elephant in the room during Monday night’s community meeting at Sequoyah High School with the director of schools candidates.

As one of the final three candidates to replace outgoing Director of Schools Tim Blankenship, McClendon has come under fire lately after news surfaced that she was on paid leave and under investigation at her current school district, Shelby County Schools, where she serves as the director of Early Childhood Programs. The investigation stems from an anonymous complaint letter.

“Let’s get it all out in the open, right off the top,” McClendon told those in attendance. “Two things I know are very true. One, I’ve not done anything that I shouldn’t have done. It’s just a process in the district where I am currently employed to make sure that if anyone writes any sort of a letter that we do our due diligence to investigate… Second thing is that if you go to the Chinese buffet in Madisonville and it says frog legs, then it’s probably frog legs.”

Finding McClendon’s statement unsatisfactory, Melanie Phillips posed a specific question to McClendon later in the community meeting, asking her what her current status is with her school district and if she could elaborate on what led to the investigation.

“We have a process in our school district, where if someone writes an anonymous letter or if they sign their name, because we are such a large district, to protect myself and the other employees, when people make allegations, they are investigated,” McClendon answered. “I am glad they investigate. My children attend schools there in the Memphis area. You have to make sure you are being protective of the children.”

McClendon said in a leadership role, sometimes you make decisions that result in negative feedback.

“I’m going to do what is right,” she said. “I am going to make a decision, even if it’s a tough decision or a hard decision, I’m going to do what is best for the children and the majority. That doesn’t always make you popular.”

McClendon said she “respected the opportunity” to address the situation at the meeting.

“There is an investigation occurring and I’m glad it occurs,” she continued. “I anticipate just like anything else, the investigation will occur, they will clear and we’ll move on.”

Phillips, however, told McClendon she was not sure if that really answered her question, asking again for her status in the school district.

“There are several parts to an investigation,” McClendon responded, referring those in attendance to a statement released to WBIR-Channel 10. “My particular part, I have completed. I am done. That’s the only part I’m allowed to discuss at this point.”

The Advocate & Democrat broke the news first locally of the investigation last week after a Memphis television station first reported McClendon was being investigated.

In the statement released to the television station, McClendon confirmed she is on administrative leave and under investigation by Shelby County Schools.

According to published reports, former Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the investigation regards anonymous complaints about McClendon that started rolling in after she refused to make hires suggested by board members and other employees.

Meet the candidates

At Monday night’s community meeting, the three remaining candidates—McClendon, Robert Hooper and Phillip Swanson—had the opportunity to introduce themselves and to answer approved questions from community members.

The large crowd in Sequoyah High School’s cafeteria seemed eager to learn more about who could be the next potential director of schools.

“It’s great to see such a large crowd here interested in the future of Monroe County education,” Swanson said while introducing himself. “A couple years ago, I made the decision to retire. I’ve had a good two years. I’ve enjoyed getting to know a lot of the people in this county again. But if there is one job that could have forced me out of retirement, it’s the director of schools in Monroe County. I believe I can help the school system in Monroe County. I’ve been encouraged by many people who think I can help the school system. That’s why I’m here today.”

Swanson most recently served as the secondary supervisor for the McMinn County School System.

McClendon said her interest in the job is both for personal and professional reasons.

“My father is still in this community,” she said. “As you age, to much is given and much is required. I know I need to come home and support my father, who is here by himself now. I think this is a great opportunity to be from Madisonville and be able to come back and use all the strategies that I’ve learned somewhere else and be able to provide those for the families and students here in Monroe County.”

Hooper took a different approach, using his introduction time to recognize his family members and talk about the influence they have had on his life and how they will impact his leadership if chosen as the director.

“To understand me, you have to understand my family,” said Hooper. “They have influenced me so much and taught me so many things.”

Insurance, school maintenance

To lead off the question-and-answer session, former School Board member and retired teacher Dave Evans asked the candidates about what they might do to keep insurance coverage in place for teachers and what they would propose to pay for the two new schools that are needed—Madisonville Middle and Tellico Plains Junior High schools.

“This board adopted the Memorandum of Understanding on Thursday, in which this insurance plan is in place,” responded Swanson. “I consider that MOU a convenient with the teachers. Since the board adopted that MOU, cutting that insurance plan would not be an option for me.”

Swanson said as far as budget concerns go, “we’ll have to figure that out.”

“Those schools are in disrepair now,” he said. “I have shocked people when I told them that McMinn Central is older than Madisonville Middle and Tellico Plains Junior High. I think that speaks to your maintenance and care. We have to take care of what we have. Caring for our facilities needs to be a priority.”

McClendon noted she is “excited to death” at the possibility of becoming an employee of Monroe County Schools.

“It’s unheard of that you pay 100 percent of the employee’s insurance and 85 percent of a family plan,” she said. “I would support that in that it does absolutely need to stay.”

As far as school repairs and replacements go, McClendon said it is important to create a plan for everything in a budget.

“Look at your goals and your priorities then use your funding to address those,” she said. “Pay for what you have to have for, then start your plan. This is what we’re going to do in Phase One, this is what we’re going to do in Phase Two, this is what we’re going to do in Phase Three… through planning, you’re able to address those things.”

McClendon said whoever lands the job as director of schools will need to “build a bridge” with the County Commission.

“Let them see that we’ve worked hard to cut out the waste in our budget and see what they could do to help us,” she said.

Hooper addressed the $52 million in debt that already exists on Monroe County buildings first.

“I don’t know how it’s being paid for or how that debt is structured,” he said. “That’s the first step—look at the debt you have now and make sure it’s structured carefully. The thoughts of running that $52 million up to $100 million...where do we stop? That has to be looked at.”

Hooper said a plan of action would need to be adopted to tackle the debt and get the new school buildings.

“We do not live in a high-income area where people can afford for us to continue to raise taxes,” he said.

In response to employee insurance, Hooper called it an “amazing benefit.”

“It allows teachers here to have the choice to truly retire when they do get their 30 years in,” he said. “In other places, if you don’t have that insurance in place, retiring is not available to you because of the cost of the insurance. We do not want to take that away from teachers. After 30-31 years of chasing kindergarteners, you get tired.”

Hooper did note that he was worried about how sustainable the insurance coverage would be for the school system and incoming teachers, but said every effort needs to be made to keep it in place.

Sonia Hardin asked how the candidates felt about contracting custodial care and possibly maintenance, as brought up in conversations recently with the Monroe County Commission.

Hooper, the current principal at Tellico Plains Elementary School, said his school’s custodian can often be seen welcoming students in the mornings.

“She cares as much for the kids as any teacher in that building,” he said. “It’s really important to me to have a staff of people at the school who care about the kids.”

Hooper said he did not feel like contracting out those jobs would be a good idea.

“The kids need to know the person in those jobs,” he said. “They are a role model for the students who see them everyday.”

Swanson, while he noted contracting those jobs out would deserve consideration, agreed there were concerns in doing so.

“You don’t always save a lot of money that way,” he said. “I would be very concerned about handing that off to the county and I would say that to any of the county commissioners. If you’ve got an AC unit that’s gone down, you’ve got to get in there and get it fixed. Getting into contracting, the availability of those doing that would concern me. I would have to be convinced that is a better way to do business than what we’re doing right now.”

McClendon said she has lived through contacting custodial services and it has “literally never been the way it was.”

“When you have custodians who are a part of your family and school district culture, they take pride in that building and take care of those students,” she said. “They go above and beyond. I am not for contracting those services out… it should be avoided at all costs, especially when it comes to these daily, routine things.”

Addressing teachers’ concerns

Teacher Ezra Plemons asked the director candidates what they would do to maintain positive, working environments in the schools and at Central Office.

McClendon noted she has some strategies that she would like to bring into the role, but made it clear that recognition was very important.

“You must do what is best for children, but you also must do what is best for the employees,” she said. “On a teacher’s worst day, it’s the children’s best hope… We need to ask and really listen to what it is that would make them get up and feel good about giving their best even on their worst day to those children (in their classroom).”

Hooper said in his role as principal, he rearranged people until he got to a place where he felt good about where everyone was.

“Take the people you have and try to put them where they can do the best job possible,” he said. “What you have to do to have a really positive environment is team work. Building teams at all different levels.”

Swanson told the crowd he believed in being a “truth-teller” and building trust.

“I don’t know how you operate if people can’t depend on what you say,” he said. “Teachers respond to a pat on the back and a ‘job well done.’ That doesn’t cost anything. Our teachers need to feel supported, both emotionally and by us providing what they need.”

Teacher Priscilla Gregory asked if jobs that offer opportunities for advancement for teachers will be posted or appointed. All three candidates said jobs should be posted.

“I think there should be no appointments,” said McClendon. “I think everyone should go through a fair and transparent process.”

McClendon also noted that for those who apply for the position and are not selected, feedback should be shared with them to help them continue to grow in the areas needed.

Hooper said creating opportunities for leadership programs is essential, as well.

Swanson said the way he would do business would be to post the job and interview as many as necessary to get a solid pool of candidates.

What sets them apart

During the two-hour meeting, community members also asked the candidates about early post-secondary options for students, balancing the budget, how to include multi-cultural programs in the schools, what their main goal was for professional growth in the upcoming year, and how their experience has prepared them to hit the ground running if selected as the new director.

Community member JK Harrill boldly asked the candidates if they would resign if anything they said was not true during evaluation process.

Hooper said he gave the School Board a checklist of what he wanted to accomplish as director during his interview with them.

“It would be very easy for them to take those five documents and see if I’m doing the things I outlined,” he said. “Absolutely if I were not doing the things I outlined to you on how I would handle this job, I would resign, yes.”

Swanson echoed Hooper’s thoughts.

“If the majority of the board felt like I needed to step aside then they would just need to let me know and I would step aside.”

McClendon took it a step further.

“If you find that you’re not being effective and you’re not able to lead and get the buy in, if you’re not doing what is best for the children and the faculty and staff here in Monroe County, I think that door swings two ways. You may want to be elected for this particular position, but I think that you have to have some moral fiber to say, ‘I’m not the person. I’m not the lady for this job.’ Then, bow out gracefully so that someone can take care of these children and families in Monroe County.”

Edith Miller, a 43-year educator, asked the candidates what separates them from their contenders and would convince someone to vote for them.

Hooper revisited his life-long career in Monroe County.

“I’ve spent 32 years in education in Monroe County,” he said. My entire family lives here. My children will continue to live here and teach here. It’s incredibly important to me that we continue to grow. I have such a strong root in this community and I plan to continue to be a part of Monroe County and its education system.”

Swanson said he felt he had the ability to bring the school system together.

“I don’t want us to be an ‘us’ system, I want us to be a ‘we’ system,” he said.

Swanson added that in his years in a central office role, he feels he gained a new perspective and experience to help him lead.

“McMinn and Monroe are very close in size so I feel like I have an insight into the operations,” he said. “I’d said my breadth of experience is one thing that would separate me.”

McClendon called herself the “best of both worlds.”

“I’m from Monroe County, but I was able to go away and make it on my own under the things that I had learned and been taught here,” she said. “Now, I’m coming back. I think I’ve learned quite a bit that would help us here… I’m currently leading a division that is very similar in size, budget and complexity to many of the things going on here.”

But McClendon said she had one important motivation.

“I have a 9 year old going into fourth grade and a freshman in high school,” she said. “I’ve got to make sure I support these teachers and principals. That’s what sets me apart from these other two candidates. I’ve got to get it right because I have a big vested interest right there in my home every single day to make sure we’re getting it right.”

Full video from the community meeting can be found on the school system’s website at www.monroe.k12.tn.us. Click on the board tab at the top of the page, then select “Agenda, Minutes & Videos.”

The Board of Education plans to select the new director of schools on Thursday, June 20 in a special called meeting at 6:30 p.m.

“We have three great candidates,” School Board Chairwoman Sonya Lynn told the crowd at Monday’s meeting. “It’s a very hard decision. Remember us all Thursday night when we narrow it down to new director.”

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