Fair Grove parents call for investigation, removal of superintendent

An unsigned complaint from Fair Grove parents circulating on social media calls for the investigation and removal of longtime superintendent Mike Bell.

Parents packed into a standing-room-only school board meeting Wednesday, as they have throughout the summer, to demand answers. But they walked away with none.

In the complaint, parents allege Bell has repeatedly violated district policy regarding the hiring and the treatment of employees, including athletic coaches.

They allege he has played favorites, created a hostile working environment, and that his behavior has contributed to student athletes dropping off rosters and employees leaving the district.

Part of the concern stems from hiring Bell’s wife Amy, a retired Springfield teacher, to temporarily fill a vacant fifth-grade opening despite reported interest from internal candidates.

“At the end of the last school year, people started asking questions and talking amongst each other. And the more conversations there were, the more concerns came to light,” said parent Peggy McDannald.

“What we are asking for is for the board to investigate and determine if these are legitimate concerns … and if they do find concerns to take the appropriate action.”

Bell, entering his ninth year as superintendent, denied any wrongdoing. He has worked for the district for 24 years. He said, at this point, all complaints have been made anonymously.

“It is disappointing when folks are able to put things on social media that you feel that aren’t warranted but we have a process for that,” he said. “We are here to do what is best for our district and for our kids and that is what we are going to do.”

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In the public comment section of the Wednesday meeting, patron Jennifer Phelps brought up the complaint: “What actions has the board taken to investigate these concerns?”

Phelps was told the board could not comment on personnel matters. Another speaker asked the board how to get the issue added to a future board agenda.

Asked about the complaint after the meeting, board vice president Tanner Dowling confirmed seeing the complaint and hearing about the concerns that have been raised.

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Dowling, starting his fourth year on the board, pulled a statement out of his pocket. He read aloud: “The district is aware of anonymous complaints made and has and will continue to comply with the legally required investigation into complaints when warranted.”

Board president Cheryl Kepes was not present at the Aug. 16 meeting. Dowling said only one complaint has been forwarded to the board.

Asked about the complaint process and next steps, Dowling said it starts with filling out a form that is turned into the district office. He said the results of the investigation are then reported to the board and to the parties that are involved, which is tricky in this case because the complaint was not signed.

“We are included in the loop from point A to point B, the end,” he said.

Dowling described the nearly 1,300-student district north of Springfield, located mostly in Greene County, as high quality and a phenomenal school system.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better place to raise my kids. I’m on the board in a volunteer role because I wanted to be part of the community and fellow board members feel the same way,” he said. “I’m just proud of our school and our community should be.”

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Fair Grove parents packed a school board meeting Wednesday in the middle school library.Download Image
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In the months since the concerns surfaced, parents have communicated by email, in person and through a Facebook page. A core group of at least 20 families are involved plus various community members, McDannald said.

The News-Leader talked to a handful of parents who asked not to be identified. Asked why the complaint was made anonymously, McDannald said individuals have been reluctant to speak out.

“There is an issue with the culture at the school and because of that issue, everybody with firsthand information is afraid to come forward because either they have done so in the past and have suffered retaliation or they are afraid to do so because they know someone else who did so and suffered retaliation,” she said. “There is a very big problem with trust … and that’s not just teachers within the school, that is community members.”

In an interview Thursday morning, Bell was asked about allegations that a hostile work environment exists. He said that is not true.

“We have always been a welcoming school district to our patrons, to our community and to our staff members and we will continue to do what we have been doing,” he said. “There is absolutely, positively no room for things of that nature — retaliation or intimidation or providing a work place that is not welcoming.”

He confirmed the hiring of his wife, a retired Springfield teacher, which was recommended by the middle school principal and approved by the board. He said the rules were followed.

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At the meeting Wednesday, Bell provided a back-to-school report that appeared to address some of the concerns that have been raised.

For example, Bell explained the process for hiring retired teachers to fill vacant jobs, how they are classified and how many years they can work. He cited the results of school surveys taken last year showing the overwhelming majority of families were happy with the district.

Bell also noted the district had less turnover last year, just 17 employees, than year before. He noted the teacher turnover in Fair Grove is less than half the state average.

“For the last eight school years, going into my ninth year, we have done tremendous things here in Fair Grove and we are going to continue to do those things and build upon our success,” he said. “We are going to keep kids first, we are going to rise above the noise and focus on our students.”

Claudette Riley covers education for the News-Leader. Email tips and story ideas to [email protected].

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