Muscogee: Squelching Dissent?

July 4, 2004

John A. Phillips, Jr., Ph.D.
Superintendent
P. O. Box 2427
Columbus, GA 31902-2427

Dear Dr. Phillips:

I am writing to you concerning the matter that I briefly addressed with you on June 21, 2004. This matter deals with the abrupt and sudden transfer of teachers from the Woodall Program. As you probably know, at least two of the six teachers filed grievances against Lenora Emziah, the director of the program. These two and several other teachers met with Mr. Don Cooper, Chief Human Resources Officer, to voice their concerns about the leadership of the program. All of the teachers who met with Mr. Cooper were "administratively transferred." In fact, at a faculty meeting, Ms. Emziah apparently told the entire faculty that the six teachers who talked to Mr. Cooper would be transferred -- before the six teachers were even told individually about the impending transfers. To say the least, this unconscionable action by Ms. Emziah created a chilling effect on the teachers’ exercising of their right to access the school system’s grievance policy which is mandated by statute (O.C.G.A. 20-2-989.5 et. seq.). Because these teachers deigned to access their right under the grievance policy and because they deigned to speak out on "matters of public concern" (a right that teachers have under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution), they were "administratively transferred." If it looks like reprisal and it walks like reprisal, it is reprisal, and reprisals for using the grievance policy is specifically prohibited by the statute governing grievances (O.C.G.A. 20-2-989.8[11]).

I mentioned to you in our discussion that I was concerned about the legality of the transfers. You quickly retorted, "I’m not concerned about the law." It was hard for me to believe that you as a superintendent actually made that statement. But, you repeated that statement a second time -- perhaps for the sake of emphasis. I would suggest that you begin to be concerned about the law. The law should govern your actions.

On June 24, 2004, Mr. Cooper called me concerning these transfers. (I had visited his office as well on June 21, 2004 but he wasn’t in.) We had a rather pleasant conversation concerning the transfers. He assured me that he had talked to each teacher individually about the transfers. But, after talking to one of the "Woodall Six" teachers that evening, she stated that Mr. Cooper had not talked to the "Woodall Six" individually. In fact, she stated that he would not even return her phone calls. Apparently, there is a discrepancy here.

The whole sordid affair was mishandled. In fact, the teachers’ rights to access the grievance policy and to speak out on "matters of public concern" were mangled and trampled upon. The teachers did the system a favor for having the fortitude to speak out concerning the apparent lack of leadership in the Woodall Program. However, the school system apparently chose to ignore their concerns, to punish them for their speaking out, and to send forth a message to the other employees that they had better not speak out as the "Woodall Six" did or they too will be "administratively transferred." Anyone worth their salt knows that an "administrative transfer" carries with it a negative connotation. Such retaliation is a sophomoric trick which petty and small-minded administrators employ. It is the type of pettiness which deflates morale and tarnishes the school system’s image. It is the type of action which I have come to expect from school systems like the Atlanta Public Schools. In Atlanta, thuggery is the norm, not the exception. But, to learn that a progressive city like Columbus has a school system which operates like the old Soviet Politburo makes me feel ashamed that I matriculated through the system. The Muscogee County School District has certainly undergone its moments of angst with the untimely deaths of Drs. Nail and Burns. One would hope that it was now operating on an even keel. But, to abruptly and brusquely transfer the "Woodall Six" for simply expressing their concerns through the proper channels smacks with the "strong-armism" of realpolitik. Columbus deserves better school leadership than this. Transferring the entire choir is not the answer. Sometimes it is better to transfer the choir director. But, if it was your goal as superintendent to simply squelch dissent, then perhaps you may have accomplished your short-term goal. But, in the long-term, this type of punishment will only sow the seeds of the collapse of your own leadership. One only has to look at the example of the old Soviet Union and its Eastern-bloc countries to understand this. Such action taken against the "Woodall Six" is indeed "evil" in both its nature and its scope.

Sincerely,

John R. A. Trotter, Ed.D.,J.D.
Executive Director

JRAT/pt

c. Muscogee County Board Members
James E. Humes, II
Karen P. Jones, Executive Assistant
Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
Lenora Emziah, Woodall Program
Michael R. Holiman, Chairman, Atlanta School Board
Dr. Floyd D. Toth, Professional Standards Commission
Jim Wooten, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Ken Foskett, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Jeff Nesmith, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Dr. Beverly Hall, Superintendent, Atlanta
David Brown, MACE Network Attorney
Atlanta Legal Department
Glenn A. Delk, Attorney
Gary M. Sams, Clayton and DeKalb School Board Attorney
Randy Reece, Human Resources, Fulton
Dr. Barbara Pulliam, Superintendent, Clayton
Jack Warren, Central Office Administrator, Clayton
Michael J. Vanairsdale, Superintendent, Fulton
Dr. Jim Williams, Associate Superintendent, DeKalb
Dr. Johnny Brown, Superintendent, DeKalb
Kelly A. Sherrill, Cobb and Fulton School Board Attorney
Glenn Brock, Cobb and Fulton School Board Attorney
Joseph J. Redden, Superintendent, Cobb
TheTeachersAdvocate.Com

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