JCPS fires Norton Elementary School principal Ken Stites

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The longtime principal of Norton Elementary School was fired by Jefferson County Public Schools on Tuesday following a district investigation.

Ken Stites, who has been the principal at Norton since 2005, was terminated from Jefferson County Public Schools for "conduct unbecoming of a principal, inefficiency, insubordination and neglect of duty," according to a copy of an evaluation conference that occurred on May 26 obtained by WDRB through an open records request.

Allison Martin, a spokesman for JCPS, said following that evaluation conference last week, Stites was suspended from his duties. She said Norton's assistant principal, Emily Iliff, will be in charge until a new principal is named.

"He was notified of his termination recommendation this morning," she said, adding that a copy of his actual termination letter was not immediately available because Stites has 10 days to appeal the district's decision.

However, in a lengthy interview with WDRB on Wednesday afternoon, Stites and his attorney provided a copy of the five-page termination letter, as well as other documents related to his case.

"I will fight," Stites said. "I will be coming back."

His attorney, Will Walsh, says that Stites is innocent of all charges.

"We are going to respond now ... and I trust that justice will be done  because he hasn't done anything wrong, much less for anything of which he should be terminated," Walsh said.

Walsh sent an appeal of the termination to the Kentucky Department of Education late Wednesday, in which Stites has requested an open hearing so the public can listen to the proceedings.

The disciplinary letter given to Stites last week states two reasons for the action, one of which was heavily redacted by the district. It says an investigation was launched following an anonymous phone tip made to the district in December.

It indicates that Stites "violated a state law, JCPS and Kentucky Department of Education policies, as well as the Kentucky Code of Professional Ethics."

According to the termination letter provided by Stites, the district alleges he"provided false and/or misleading information on your daughters' student assignment applications." 

The termination letter, written by Superintendent Donna Hargens, states "other meetings with district officials about this topic have also been held."

"Over the course of four years, you and/or your spouse stated on those applications that your daughters were residents of Jefferson County, in an attempt to satisfy the district's residency requirement in order to attend JCPS schools, including magnet programs that only admit Jefferson County residents," the termination letter states.

"However, the district has learned through its own investigation that your daughters did not regularly reside at the addresses provided or another Jefferson County address you recently claimed they were residents of," it reads. "Instead, they resided, within the meaning of Kentucky law and JCPS and KDE policies ... in Greenville, Indiana."

The termination letter continues on to say: "As you are well aware, students who are not Jefferson County residents can attend certain JCPS schools so long as they pay required tuition. You have not made any tuition payments on behalf of your daughters."

"Your affirmative, by failed, efforts to meet the residency requirements for your daughters to attend JCPS schools constitute conduct unbecoming and have resulted in a cascade of inefficiency regarding this matter," the letter states. "Specifically, your actions caused the district to spend vast amounts of unnecessary resources and time to uncover the truth, not to mention the tuition that should have been paid to the district if your children, as Indiana residents, attended district schools."

Stites told WDRB that he had given a family member who lives in Jefferson County power of attorney and guardianship of his daughters "for the purpose of education." When his youngest daughter applied for and was accepted into a JCPS high school last fall, "we made the decision to get an apartment in Louisville until we could put our house on the market in Indiana."

Stites maintains he was open with all of this information and shared details with the district.

"The power of attorney and guardianship ended at the end of last year and I leased an apartment beginning in January and provided them (JCPS) with a copy of my lease," Stites said. "I was trying to give them the correct information. I was open and transparent about this whole process."

Stites and Walsh say that as part of the investigation, a district investigator followed him to his home in Indiana. They said on a different occasion, the investigator was given access to his Jefferson County apartment by his landlord.

"They saw evidence that people were living in the apartment," Walsh said.

Stites refused to sign the May 26 disciplinary document on advice of his attorney and at the bottom of the form, there is a footnote stating that in Stites' assertion that "his conduct was not willful because he did not understand district rules and state law regarding (redacted) requirements, his conduct must also be considered incompetent. A principal simply cannot be ignorant of these basic rules regarding (redacted)."

In addition to the residency issue, the district also states in its termination letter that allegations were made that he had "improperly overstaffed a position at your school and had inappropriately influenced your SBDM council to defund and remove the position from your school completely."

The termination letter references a site-based council meeting held at Norton Elementary earlier this year involving the elimination of the school's goal clarity coach. According to the school’s website, Renae Mullins-May is Norton’s goal clarity coach.

At a Jan. 31 SBDM meeting, it was announced that staff reduction for the 2017-18 year would include the school’s goal clarity coach. According to minutes from that meeting available on the district's website, some JCPS schools cut the goal clarity coach position last year, but Norton opted to keep the position with the school picking up a percentage of that salary (instead of the district).

During a Feb. 28 meeting, the SBDM minutes indicate that Stites recommended the council eliminate the goal clarity coach position for two reasons, one because of the add-on budget reduction by the board.

The second reason was initially unknown because it was later redacted from the minutes by someone at the district. Martin told WDRB on Wednesday that there was an error made in the administrative process of correcting the minutes.

"The minutes should have been revised and approved by the SBDM," she said. "The redactions were made because comments in the meeting violated SBDM policy of discussing positions – not people. The un-redacted minutes have been posted online."

According to the May 26 disciplinary letter, "by recommending that the SBDM council eliminate the position of goal clarity coach for the 2017-2018 school year and supporting that recommendation with statements regarding the performance of the person in the position, Stites engaged in conduct unbecoming (of) a principal."

However, two teachers who are members of Norton's SBDM told WDRB News on Tuesday that Stites never spoke about the performance of an individual person, only about the position.

"He never said anything bad about anyone -- it was about the position," said Carla McCabe, a third grade teacher who serves on the council. "He recommended to eliminate the position because at the time, our projected kindergarten enrollment is down for next year."

Sharon George, another teacher on the site-based council, also told WDRB News that she didn't recall Stites saying anything about the person in the position. 

McCabe and George said they were never questioned by the district or an investigator about the Feb. 28 meeting -- or any other SBDM meetings.

The district's termination letter states during the 2016-17 year "disagreements arose between you and Ms. Mullins-May over the manner and level at which she should communicate with parents." It continues on to say as a result of meetings with Stites on Feb. 24 and March 8, "Mullins-May filed a Level 1 employee complaint, alleging she that she was being overstaffed by you out of retaliation for her personal disagreements with you about the manner in which you were running the school."

A phone message left for Mullins-May on Wednesday, as well as an email sent to her work email account on Tuesday, were not returned as of 6 p.m. on Wednesday.

In a letter sent to the Norton Elementary School staff on Wednesday, JCPS assistant superintendent Joe Leffert informed them that "Mr. Stites will not be returning as principal of Norton Elementary next school year. I will be working with your site-based-decision making council to ensure a principal is in place to continue the tradition of academic excellence at Norton."

A similar letter was sent to parents.

Norton Elementary is one of the district's highest performing schools and was recently asked to submit an application to be recognized as part of the National Blue Ribbon Schools Program later this fall, which recognizes public and private elementary, middle, and high schools based on their overall academic excellence or their progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups.

Under state law, any certified public school employee who is terminated, suspended without pay or publicly reprimanded has the right to appeal the superintendent's decision to a tribunal. The panel consists of an active or retired teacher, an administrator and a lay person -- none of whom reside in the county involved in the dispute.

During a tribunal hearing, both sides subpoena witnesses to testify and who are subject to cross-examination by the other side. Each side also introduces exhibits to prove their case.

The tribunal panel then has five days to render a decision with a majority vote. The decision is binding and may be appealed to circuit court by either party.

According to the appeal letter filed by Walsh and sent to the state, "my client denies having engaged in any conduct warranting his termination."

"Moreover, it does not appear that the allegations now asserted as the basis for his termination were substantiated by JCPS," Walsh wrote. "As such, they cannot be proof of conduct unbecoming, or any other ground for termination. Further, he was provided no opportunity to review, much less respond to many of the allegations incorporated into the May 30 letter notifying him of his termination."

Meanwhile, a group of Stites supporters took to social media using the hashtag #IstandwithStites, and have indicated plans for a rally outside the school at 10 a.m. Thursday.

Reporter Antoinette Konz can be reached at 585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

Copyright 2017 WDRB News. All rights reserved.