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De. Charles Lawson 

After a passionate and lengthy discussion, the Coffee County Board of Education renewed Director of Schools Dr. Charles Lawson’s contract during the October board meeting for four years and included a $5,000 raise.

The motion, that narrowly passed 4-to-3, called for the action to be retroactive to July 1, 2021, placing Lawson’s contract through 2024-25.

Board members Freda Jones, Pat Barton and Robert Gilley, dissented, while Larry Crabtree, Sandra Klonaris, Brett Henley and Chairman Gary Nester offered ayes.

Nester told the Times later that  “in the end  every citizen in Coffee County was represented during the meeting  as all seven members  were present and allowed to cast a vote.”   

“The motion passed to renew the contract and I’m confident our board will work together to promote our schools  and continue to represent the citizens of Coffee county. 

Some concerns, however, were expressed concerning the renewal and the raise.

Former Manchester Alderman and Coffee County parent Lana Sain told the board that when she tried to enroll her son within the school district, “Dr. Lawson treated me with arrogance and disrespect.”

“It was a very humiliating experience for us and something that could have and should have been handled with dignity and respect,” Sain said.

Fellow parent Sarah Bradley shared Sain’s concerns, “Quite frankly, I’m baffled that we’re discussing four years.”

Bradley, comparing former Director Dr. LaDonna McFall’s reviews and Lawson’s, argued that Lawson should only be offered a one year extension.

“You may not be here for those four years. There’s a good chance that some of you won’t unless we do a better job of listening to parents and their input and having some difficult conversations about how things are going in our school system and how well the director is performing,” she said.

“We have passionate teachers and administrators who want to do their best, but they cannot in this environment when concerns are seen as threats and ideas are abhorrent and immediately shut down… without consideration,” Bradley said.

 Before the vote, Barton asked that the motion made by Crabtree be broken down so that a vote could be heard on the extension and a separate one for giving Lawson a pay increase. Barton’s request failed.

Barton felt it was wrong to give the director a greater salary increase than what the teachers were given.

Klonaris said that while teachers are valuable to the district, their jobs are different than the director. She also defended Lawson’s character, as did Henley who said that all but two of the people he’d either surveyed or been approached by have been supportive of Lawson.

“Of those 15 people…two gave dissenting comments, the other 13 were very positive about Dr. Lawson,” Henley said. “Dr. Lawson has made mistakes…but has he learned from those mistakes? I absolutely believe he has.” 

Jones disagreed, saying that all the people she’s talked with have been critical of Lawson. She said that there is a common refrain among critics of Lawson that he’d made them feel inferior or treated them with disdain.

“I’m not one to go out here and stir up trouble, but when someone calls me for help or to see what can be done, I listen,” she said.

“We’re talking about COVID. It was a bad year, I give Dr. Lawson credit. We can’t evaluate someone in those circumstances. But we can evaluate leadership. That’s when a leader rises to the top. When you get something that comes at you that you’re not expecting, that’s when to step up to the plate and take your school forward,” Jones said.

“The schools are not moving forward, and it’s not just because of COVID.”

Jones criticized Lawson for not being forthcoming with test results and for not informing the board that Coffee County Middle School is in danger of being designated a target school, a federal designation for schools that need particular focus on their student group performance.     

“We need to be made aware of these things. We need goals and strategies to improve. We can’t just hide it under the table,” she said. “I have no idea what our goals are – our short term goals, our long term goals.”

Jones was concerned that Lawson’s raise was placed in this year’s budget before his contract even came before the board.

 Barton supported only extending Lawson’s contract for one or two years and objected to a raise. He supported Lawson for pulling the district through COVID, but was critical of the district’s lack of growth.

“We have growth things that we need to do. We’ve been treading water for a long time, not swimming. It’s time for us to start swimming,” Barton said.

He agreed that people have complained that Lawson had made them feel inferior.

“I do think there is a problem with empathy with Dr. Lawson. Phillip Gold passed, I was notified Saturday and I waited and watched for Dr. Lawson’s notification,” he said.

“As of (Monday, Oct. 11) it still has not come (from the director) that we have lost a staff member. That sends a message to teachers that if I pass, I’m not worthy of one line from my boss,” Barton said.

   The meeting also included approval for a $1,500 bonus across the board to each employee which passed unanimously 4-0, following Henley leaving the meeting early and Jones and Barton walking out after the contentious director vote.

Barton later told the Times, “The board had a motion and second on the floor which was open for debate. I had a number of items to address concerning this motion. Robert's Rules of Order allows me to debate twice on a motion, no more than 10 minutes per debate. I could possibly have been in excess of 10 minutes while giving my first debate.”

He said that “in the future I will have a timer to end my first debate at 10 minutes. A board member "called the question" while I was debating, and this has no basis to end debate in Robert's Rules. The chairman wrongly perceived that this ended debate and a vote must be taken. A vote was taken and the motion passed. I would have no problem with the board action if correct procedures had been followed.  My constituents' voice was silenced by improper procedures.  Admittedly, I was very upset at this point and voted ‘no’ on the motion,   Right or wrong, I walked out of the meeting at this point. 

Barton stresses that the walkout was not in protest of the vote.

“I want it known that I did not walk out because the motion passed. I completely accept the majority vote on all motions that come before the vote,” Barton said.

John has been with the Manchester Times since May 2011. John has won Tennessee Press Association awards for Best News Photo and placed in numerous other categories. John is a 1994 graduate of Tullahoma High School, a graduate of Motlow State Community College and earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from Middle Tennessee State University. He lives in Tullahoma, enjoys painting, dancing and exploring the outdoors.

Staff Writer

Download the free Manchester Times mobile app at the app store. John has won Tennessee Press Association awards for Best News Photo and placed in numerous other categories.

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