School Counsellor Denied Reinstatement to Job in Maury County Public Schools

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Patricia Hawkins of Columbia stands outside the Maury County Public Schools System Central Office and has plans to appeal her dismissal from her job at Highland Park Elementary School where she worked as a student counselor last year. Photo by: Clint Confehr

COLUMBIA, TN —  A former Maury County Public School System student counsellor’s “appeal for reinstatement” was denied after a protracted, quasi-judicial trial before a hearing officer whose conclusion was submitted Aug. 9.

Highland Park Elementary School counselor Patricia Hawkins was suspended without pay last December. In January, the school board decided that if Hawkins did what was alleged, then she could be dismissed. She appealed. Hearings were held in April and May.

“The Maury County Board of Education has carried its burden of proof demonstrating that the Hawkins termination decision should be upheld on the grounds of insubordination, unprofessional conduct, inefficiency, and neglect of duty,” hearing officer J. Christopher Williams of Pulaski wrote in his 12-page findings of fact and conclusions of law.

Throughout the hearings, Hawkins argued that her superiors conspired to dismiss her by reversing her long-standing record of good reviews for her work. Their motive was, she alleged, in retaliation for her complaint to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office in Nashville over a racially-motivated transfer from one school to the other in the Maury County system. Hawkins’ received a “right to sue” letter from the EEOC. Her federal complaint has been the subject of mediation for months.

“I am not surprised” by Williams’ conclusion, Hawkins told the Tribune, adding that she hoped for better results. She has been conferring with a Memphis-based employment attorney in anticipation of the need to appeal.

Her attorney, Virginia McCoy, staff attorney for the Tennessee Education Association, and Jake Wolaver, the school board’s attorney, both said after the hearings that regardless of the conclusion of the hearing officer, they anticipated an appeal.

McCoy “filed a request to the … Board of Education, which is the next step in the tenure dismissal process,” the TEA attorney wrote to Hawkins on Aug. 10.  Both sides in such a dispute “are allowed to make arguments to the board … [and] … there are some good arguments to be made to the board on appeal,” McCoy told Hawkins.

In a letter to the school system’s director, Chris Marczak, McCoy cited Tennessee law stating in this situation an educator must exhaust administrative remedies to a hearing officer’s conclusion before taking the case to civil court. McCoy and Wolaver anticipated that the case would go to Maury County Chancery Court.

A more detailed report on this story is to appear in the print edition of The Tennessee Tribune later this month.

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