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Seven hours, no action; Letter unveils reasons for meeting about Whitis’ contract

By Richard Greene | Published Saturday, June 9, 2018
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After a marathon meeting held behind closed doors Tuesday into Wednesday morning, Decatur ISD trustees took no action on the contract of superintendent Judi Whitis.

Judi Whitis

The special meeting came a week after School Board President Wade Watson sent Whitis a two-page letter detailing “multiple concerns [that] have been brought to the attention of several [board] members recently.” The Messenger received the letter through a public information request Thursday afternoon.

On Friday morning, in response to the letter and the meeting, Whitis said she was “blindsided by the events.”

“I’m going to be proud to continue to work in Decatur ISD. I’m very pleased with the progress that has been made,” Whitis said. “It is an excellent school district with tremendous potential. It’s very unfortunate that within the last month this chain of events has occurred. It’s unfortunate for the students, staff and the community.”

Watson’s letter indicated the board was considering placing Whitis on administrative leave with pay. But after seven hours in closed session, the board emerged at 1:13 a.m. Wednesday and two minutes later Watson announced that no action would be taken.

After the adjournment, Watson released the following statement on the matter: “The board received a great deal of information and input during our meeting this evening. This material should be carefully considered prior to taking any formal action on the item reflected on tonight’s agenda. In an effort to make decisions in the best interest of all parties involved, we ask that the community and district stakeholders afford us time to consider all of the data brought to our attention prior to revisiting this matter at a later meeting.”

Trustees are scheduled to meet again June 18. Watson said no special meetings are planned. He also said he could not say more than his statement at this time.

Trustees met with attorneys from the law firm Leasor Crass from Mansfield while in closed session. The attorneys were dismissed after approximately 30 minutes.

In his letter to Whitis, Watson said he retained the services of the firm to assist in advising the board. The Messenger submitted a public information request for the contract or terms with the firm for handling the matter. That request was sent to Watson on the advice of the school district’s general counsel from Walsh, Gallegos. The request had not been met as of press time Friday.

The Messenger also requested email board updates sent from Whitis to trustees in the month of May and June and any emails sent between Whitis and Watson during that same period of time. Those requests were filled.

The first email between Whitis and Watson hinting at the special called meeting was May 29, with Whitis asking about the wording for the agenda: consider and discuss the superintendent’s goals, objectives and duties.

The next day the letter with the board’s concerns was sent from Watson to Whitis with the final sentence, “if Dr. Whitis retains counsel, please have them contact Rhonda Crass directly.”

The letter states that board members have received communications from multiple individuals who feel the district is moving in a negative direction. It alleges personnel felt hesitant to share their concerns with Whitis, fearing retaliation; individuals leaving the district expressed demoralizing and unprofessional treatment; and individuals felt one internal individual was providing counsel not in Whitis’ best interest or the best interest of the district.

Watson also said in the letter there was a marked difference between communications the board was receiving and those being provided to directors, which was fueled by canceled meetings and the exclusion of individuals from decision-making processes in matters related to their areas of responsibility. He added that there was a growing concern about Whitis’ ability to support the needs of a growing number of new principals and assistant principals on five of the six campuses in the district.

“Because of what appears to [be] significant and widespread concerns on the part of district stakeholders, I, as board president with the knowledge of the board officers, have retained the services of an attorney for guidance and direction in navigating this situation and how to proceed forward,” Watson wrote.

“When you were hired, we expressed we were not in search of a change agent for our district. We have had a lot of changes take place in the last nine months, and various members of the board are not confident that all of them have been in the best interest of the district.”

Whitis said trustees knew of the changes in administration at various campuses and in central administration.

“Being a leader, I’ve always been told, ‘If you are doing your job you are going to make some people mad,'” Whitis said. “It’s very disheartening that the board was aware of things and to come back and say this is not the way we should have gone. Four hundred fifty employees is a lot of people to work to make the district function properly, efficiently and effectively.”

Whitis arrived in Decatur in July 2017 to replace the retiring Rod Townsend. She previously served as the superintendent at Valley Mills ISD. She also had a tenure as the superintendent at Fort Davis.

In February, trustees gave a unanimous approval of her performance. Trustees added a year to Whitis’ contract that will run through July 30, 2021, and gave her a $3,000 raise. With the raise effective March 1, her annual salary is $158,000.

Whitis said she stayed in regular correspondence with the board, providing weekly updates. She sent four board updates in May, according to emails obtained by the Messenger. She said she was given no hints of issues during goal setting or during her formal review in February.

“[These issues were brought up] very sudden, really within the last few weeks,” she said. “They did a goal setting. I did a full progress review in January and asked for feedback and a formal review in February. We talk every single month. They give regular correspondence. So it was definitely a blindside of events. It’s unfortunate for everybody.”

Whitis provided a document to board officers in response to the concerns.

“It is my intent and desire to continue to work with the board, administrative team and staff for continued success. There have been many positive outcomes this year, and tremendous potential exists for continued growth and excellence in DISD,” Whitis said in her response. “I have integrated myself into the community and have worked diligently to build positive, trusting relationships both internally and externally. Please know that I am committed to working side by side with the board to identify the vision, direction and priorities that you all have for moving forward next year as well as in the years to come.”

She said Friday she did not know what will happen next.

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