School board chair meddled in jobs of coaches and even a school greeter, agency says

Fayette County school board chairwoman Melissa Bacon.
Fayette County school board chairwoman Melissa Bacon. Fayette County Public Schools

Fayette County school board chairwoman Melissa Bacon violated state law by trying to get coaches hired and fired, other staff fired and otherwise involving herself in personnel matters at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability has ruled.

The state agency is requiring Bacon, who investigators said acted outside her authority as a board member, to get additional training on the responsibilities of a school board member.

“Ms. Bacon involved herself in personnel matters in the district ranging from the hiring of football coaches, efforts to terminate a baseball coach and teacher; and the removal of a soccer coach, athletic director, math teacher, and a greeter at Dunbar High School,” a Sept. 7 investigative report said. “Ms. Bacon exceeded her authority as a board member by participating in walk-throughs at Dunbar” with district officials “and by attempting to have students disciplined and removed from the baseball team.”

When school board members in Kentucky take the oath of office, they swear that they won’t influence the hiring of school personnel except for the superintendent and the board attorney, the report said. In a school, hiring is the job of the principal and the school council.

Bacon told the Herald-Leader on Friday that she disagreed with many of the characterizations in the report and that her actions were the result of constituent concerns.

The Office of Education Accountability, through emails and interviews, found incidents in which Bacon intervened in personnel decisions.

According to the report:

▪  Bacon didn’t like the person assigned to greet people at Dunbar in 2010-11 and wanted the principal to remove him from the position. Bacon didn’t want to come to the school and see the greeter. Then-Superintendent Stu Silberman encouraged the principal to comply with Bacon’s wishes. The principal didn’t fire the man but transferred him to another position.

▪  When a committee was about to offer a job to a new football coach at Dunbar in 2011-12, Bacon told Superintendent Tom Shelton to keep the position open longer so a more thorough job search could be conducted. When Shelton said he wouldn’t interfere in the process, Bacon replied, “This truly makes me not want to do my job. That’s how strongly I feel.”

▪  In 2013, with the Dunbar football coach job open again, Bacon asked Shelton to intervene and hire Chuck Smith, a former University of Kentucky assistant football coach who had built Boyle County into a powerhouse. Shelton said Smith wanted Fayette County to reinstate some of the state benefits he lost when he went to UK. The district didn’t want to set a precedent by doing so.. Bacon unsuccessfully lobbied to have Smith hired, arguing that it wouldn’t set a bad precedent. Smith was eventually hired by Boyle County for a second time. In a separate case, the OEA determined recently that Boyle County board chairman Steve Tamme violated state law by participating in Smith’s hiring there. Smith was not alleged to have done anything wrong in either case.

▪  In the 2012-13 school year, Bacon wanted the Dunbar baseball coach fired after a baseball player was injured in an accident at a baseball camp. When Shelton didn’t fire him but the coach resigned, Bacon wanted Shelton to make sure he didn’t get a job at another school, saying, “He has no business coaching kids.” She also wanted the principal to discipline and remove some baseball players from the team.

▪  In the 2013-14 school year, Bacon wanted the Dunbar girl’s soccer coach and athletic director removed. She used her position as a board member to try to get her daughter’s class schedule changed after the deadline had passed.

▪  In 2011-12, Bacon tried to have a Dunbar math teacher removed who had erroneously used the grading scale. Shelton told Bacon that the teacher was tenured and was the only teacher certified to teach a dual-credit math class. Bacon responded, “Why do we put a horrible teacher in there just because he’s the only one certified to teach it?”

In response to the report, Bacon said in a statement Friday, “While I respect the authority of the OEA, I disagree with many of the characterizations made in their report. My actions were a sincere effort to convey concerns that had been shared with me by my constituents, not to insert myself into personnel matters. Any time I had to advocate as a mom, I took steps to make that distinction clear.”

Bacon said she takes her role seriously “and would never intentionally overstep my bounds. Serving the students and families of Fayette County for the past nine years has been an honor and privilege, and our school district has made great strides in that time. We have built public trust and confidence in our district and we’re looking forward to adopting a strategic plan to chart the course that will make Fayette County Public Schools the top district in our nation.”

Bacon, according to the agency’s Sept. 7 document, responded to a preliminary report from the state agency by saying that no public-service position should prohibit her from advocating for her children and that in many cases she was carrying out her duties as a school board member, or that her “role was as a parent.”

To that, the agency countered: “Ms. Bacon did not abdicate her duty to her children when she was elected to the board. She did ... take on the added responsibility of acting in the best interest of the district even if that interest is adverse to her own interest.”

The report said this is the first time the agency has investigated Bacon’s actions as a member of the school board, but if the agency receives and substantiates additional violations, the agency could refer her case to the Kentucky Department of Education. If that happens, under state law, the state education commissioner could ask the state school board to remove her from office.

Mike Armstrong, executive director of the Kentucky School Boards Association, issued a statement about the report Friday: “School board service involves numerous situations where there is a fine line between their roles as district leaders and community representatives. We are studying this finding closely and will be sharing our concerns with OEA after a thorough review of the report.”

Fayette County Superintendent Manny Caulk also responded to the report, praising Bacon’s work as a school board member.

“She gives tirelessly of her time and energy and is willing to go above and beyond to ensure that all children have a pathway to success. I am humbled to serve alongside Melissa and the other members of our school board team. Together they have set a high standard for our school district and together we will achieve that vision.”

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears