School officials skewered over residency, pay

Published 9:26 am Saturday, August 21, 2010

FRANKLIN—Franklin City Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Michelle Belle was accused during Thursday’s school board meeting of violating her contract by not establishing a full-time residency here.

In other matters, the school board was criticized for allowing former Franklin High School principal Lawrence Whiting to be transferred to a new position that still pays him $82,247 annually.

Belle and residency

Franklin resident William Kannan claimed Belle is violating her two-year contract by not establishing a full-time residence in the city.

“Her contract states (that she will) establish and maintain legal residency in our city,” he said. “I interpret this to mean seven days a week, not Monday through Friday. I hope our board made it clear that they could void her contract. I believe the spirit of the letter of the contract means for the superintendent to be here full-time, not 75 percent of the time.”

After the meeting, Belle told The Tidewater News she is a resident of Franklin, having lived at Meadow Ridge Apartments for more than a year. She concedes she is not in town seven days a week, but disputes Kannan’s assertion that she is required to be.

“Some weekends I am here, and some weekends I am wherever I want to go,” Belle said. “You can’t dictate what I do on weekends. I’m on call, but I’m only required to work 37 hours a week. That’s what my contract requires me to do.”

She said she works more than the contract requires.

“I work way beyond 37 hours a week,” Belle said. “There are a lot of events and things that I do here on weekends, and I don’t clock those hours. I meet and see kids and go to events with kids. I’m here because I do buy into this community, and I do buy into these kids that I’m here to service.”

Belle said she and her husband, Alfonso, have considered moving to Franklin since she accepted the job in April 2009, but could not make the move unless he found employment here.

Belle is paid $98,000 a year to serve as superintendent. Her contract expires June 30, 2011.

She added that she also leaves town to care for her mother.

“I still have a mother, so even if I was in Franklin I would still be out of here every weekend to go check on her,” Belle said. “Bottom line, as long as my mother is still living, she is going to come first. I don’t care where I’m living, I’m going to see my mother on weekends.”

Franklin City Councilman Greg McLemore said during the school board meeting he was “in the middle” of the issue of whether Belle should be in town most days.

“Under normal circumstances, I could agree with that,” McLemore said. “I believe that when you are a resident of the community, you have an opportunity to interact more with the citizens. However, there are other department heads (in city government) that are in question as to their residency. So, I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying that it’s not fair for her (to do it) when other department heads have been able to.”

“Let’s improve our city so people want to live here as well as work here,” he added.

Whiting’s new position

Former school board member David Benton said he is upset that Whiting, just one year after being hired as the principal of Franklin High, was given a new position in the division’s central office as supervisor of food and support services — a job, for which state law mandates he be paid the same $82,247 salary he made as principal because the move came after April 15.

“Every single dollar in our school budget is critical to the success of our students,” Benton said. “For this board to overspend for a cafeteria supervisor position, in this economic climate, is extremely troubling to me.”

Kannan also took issue with Whiting being moved to another job.

“We made a real rookie mistake that we have repeated many times in the past, and criticized others for these same mistakes,” Kannan said. “Whose job was it to evaluate Whiting’s job performance before April 15 to see if he was doing a satisfactory job? The public has a right to know. It is as if we are rewarding someone for not doing their job.”

According to Whiting’s new job description, he will be responsible for food service operations, truancy, students’ behavioral problems and the division’s annual inventory.

Rodney Berry became the new Franklin High principal on Aug. 1, after one year at the helm of J.P. King Middle School. The division is still looking to hire a new principal at J.P. King to replace Berry.

“One year is not enough time to turn the problems around (at the middle school),” Kannan told the school board. “You’re taking the person who helped make progress out of the school at the last minute to the high school to see if he can help (there). In football, they call this the ‘Hail Mary.’ It is an option when there are no other options.”