Loudon County Board of Education has suspended Director of Schools Jason Vance with pay while members meet with legal counsel to explore a potential buyout of his contract.

Mike Garren, assistant director of schools, has agreed to serve as interim director.

Board members voted 7-3 on June 13 in favor of a suspension, with Gary Ubben, Craig Simon and Philip Moffett opposing.

The decision was made after board member Scott Newman motioned to terminate Vance’s contract. The termination vote failed 5-5 when Bobby Johnson Jr., Zack Cusick, Simon, Moffett and Ubben opposed.

A vote to allow BOE attorney Chris McCarty to speak with Vance’s legal counsel, Chad Hatmaker, about a possible buyout passed 7-3, with Ubben, Simon and Moffett opposing.

“What we’ll do now is we’ll go talk to our attorney, Chris McCarty, and I talked to Chris a couple weeks ago and he said, ‘Listen, I hear that y’all are talking about a buyout. If that’s something y’all want to do, I’ll be more than happy to get with his (attorney),” Newman said. “That’s why I think that we needed to go ahead and move forward, but what will happen is we’ll all have to meet and decide how we’re going to move forward, what’s going to be the buyout. Who knows? We can’t make a decision in that meeting, but there might be things that come to light that are — and other board members see that he may need to be terminated also.”

“The board does not have cause to terminate Dr. Vance, a fact that was confirmed by the investigative report the board’s attorneys released in April,” Hatmaker said in an email correspondence. “This lack of cause is why the motion to terminate him at the June 13 meeting failed. After that motion failed, the board then suspended Dr. Vance with pay, which it does not have the power to do under state law, or the right to do under his contract. As the board stated at the June 13 meeting, the suspension occurred so the board can discuss buying out Dr. Vance’s contract, because it does not have cause to terminate him.

“Dr. Vance is committed to continuing to advance the students of Loudon County as director of schools,” he added.

According to the Loudon County Schools website, board members will meet 6-8 p.m. June 20 in an executive closed session for McCarty to offer “advice and answer questions regarding director’s contract and possible litigation related to the same.”

The issue dates back to December when Vance sent an email to Loudon High School boys basketball coach Josh Graves, former LHS Principal Cheri Parrish, LHS athletic director Ronnie Roberts and Garren, which was later circulated in the community. The email pertained to a varsity position involving Vance’s son.

Vance was criticized for what some believed to be bullying of Graves. An investigation conducted by attorney Lawrence Giordano, who works at the same firm as McCarty, recommended Vance be reprimanded but not terminated. The report noted Vance acted in a way that was possibly appropriate for a person who is a parent, but inappropriate for someone in the position of director of schools.

Giordano’s report didn’t provide sufficient cause to terminate Vance. He instead recommended Vance receive a written reprimand for violation of the BOE’s harassment policy and receive corrective instruction.

A corrective action plan was discussed at the workshop shortly before the Thursday meeting. The board had a resolution for the corrective action plan on the meeting agenda.

“This all became personal and he just kept on doing the same thing over and over again,” Newman said. “... I think that he’s just lost his ability to lead this school system. Jason’s a good man. We used to be friends. I guess that’s no more, but I got to do what’s right by the people and I got to do what’s right by these young men and we’ve got to set an example is that we got to do what’s right. You can’t just because you got mad at somebody be vindictive to them. There’s no room for that.

“... I hope that we can move forward and get done,” he added. “I think that at this point Jason’s ready to go. I think he’s tired of the fight. As much as we think that he’s done wrong, I’m sure that he thinks that he’s right. Like I said, Jason’s a good man, it’s just he’s let this personal issue consume him.”

Kim Bridges, board member, during both the workshop and meeting expressed her frustration with improvement plans given to Graves at the end of the year as a coach and teacher.

“I think the intent is to give — it’s very lengthy. It’s very lengthy,” Bridges said. “I don’t even think that it’s doable and that’s why I think that it was given. I don’t believe that was part of his corrective action from what occurred in December and whenever the attorneys got involved, I don’t believe it was part of that. I believe this was more of a gotcha because if you can’t do what is required then it’s going to affect you. If you can’t do it then they have reason to say you didn’t follow through with what you were given so now you don’t have a job. So I think that was the initial purpose of that, because like I said I look at it as an educator and it is massive and the requirements that that’s going to take is endless hours that aren’t needed.”

Bridges noted her frustration didn’t play a role overall when she voted to suspend.

During the workshop, Vance said he had no involvement with the improvement plans given to Graves in May.

Although Ubben would not about speak the vote to suspend Vance, Ubben said hopes to get a better understanding of what the law allows and what Vance’s contract stipulates.

“I’m hoping that we find out from our attorney talking to him what options that we have and everything,” Bobby Johnson Jr., board member, said. “I’m not going to take any board member’s word for it. I want to talk to the attorney; that’s what we’re paying him for. Like I said, see what he’s got to say and see what he advises us to do. That’s what I’ll do. ... This whole process has affected our budget. It’s kind of got pushed back on the back burner because we’ve been dealing with this for a while now and our meetings seem to keep getting more rowdier from some of the people and the way they’re acting.

“It’s gotten to the point that I’m really worried that somebody’s going to end up getting hurt, because we told some of our staff to stay at home because the last meeting before this they followed some to the parking lot,” he added. “Some of the people were cussing them and hollering at them and everything and they didn’t have anything to do with any of this. I mean that’s how bad it’s got.”

Johnson worries about what comes next.

“I’m wondering if we’re kind of almost past it the way it keeps going,” he said. “I really don’t know. I mean Jason has done a great job for us up to this point. We’ve done stuff in this school district that we’ve never done and up to this point everything had been going well until this incident. We got some of the highest test scores that we’ve ever had, highest ACT scores that the county’s ever had. So we’ve got a lot of stuff going on people don’t know about because (we’re) just dealing with this mess.”

Newman said he felt there was cause to terminate Vance’s contract, but he wouldn’t give specifics.

“A lot of things have gotten tainted the last six months and unfortunately it’s not improved,” Brian Brown, board member, said. “Things just seemed to continue to worsen, so it’s time for us to come together as a board and make a decision.”

Vance has three years left on his contract.

“He makes roughly $130,000 a year. So he may try to get damages or whatever, but it is what it is,” Newman said. “... If we end up having to buy him out and end up having to do that, I think my plan would be that we can negotiate to spread that out over three years and we put an interim director in until we can get through our three years and there may be the same — we’d have to play with our money there. If it’s a situation where Mike Garren takes over and we subsidize his payroll — I don’t know it’ll just have to be one of those things. Fund balance will be (where it’s from).”