Board Chairman John C. Combs (pictured at center) read a letter Thursday from Superintendent John Paul Amis announcing his retirement, effective Nov. 1. Amis did not attend the meeting. Pictured from left to right are board members James Ritchie, Charlene Miller, John C. Combs, Debbie McIntosh and Jerry Stacy.
HAZARD — As of Nov. 1, John Paul Amis will no longer be superintendent of Perry County Schools.
Amis announced his impending retirement through a letter addressed to board Chairman John C. Combs Thursday morning at a special called meeting of the school board, during which his employment was the only subject on the agenda.
Amis did not attend the meeting in person, but said during an interview Monday that a “difference of opinion” with the board led to him essentially being forced into choosing between early retirement or resigning, or potentially having his contract terminated by the board. He added that while he had prior discussions with his family and with Chairman Combs that he was mulling retirement, he had not expected to announce his retirement as soon as he did.
“I would have stayed a little bit longer, but you know, I guess a difference in opinion with the board has come up and I left a little bit earlier than I originally planned,” Amis said.
Had he not opted to retire or resign, the board could have moved to terminate Amis’s contract, which was not set to expire until 2016 and had been repeatedly extended by a majority vote of the board, most recently in July 2011.
“It could have come to that,” Chairman Combs said. “I think Mr. Amis looked at what was best for the district, and he took the high road. I think he did the right thing. He’s still going to be superintendent for a month. It’s not like we rode him out of here on a rail.”
Amis, who just this year was named the state’s top superintendent by the Kentucky School Board Association, had reportedly come under some scrutiny from the board following an investigation into cheating on ACT tests at Perry Central in 2010 that just concluded early this year, and the school’s listing in December 2011 as a Persistently Low-Achieving (PLA) school based upon the past three years of academic achievement.
Additionally, a memo dated June 18 from the Office of Education Accountability and obtained by the Herald last month, found that Amis had previously acted in violation of three separate state statutes regarding personnel within the district, though those allegations have since been resolved and no action against Amis was taken.
According to Amis, issues between himself and the board arose in June following the announcement that the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) had selected Neal Feltner from a pool of three applicants as the new principal at Perry Central High School.
Five days later, the board met for a special called meeting, during which they retreated to executive session. Amis claims that after the meeting he was informed by two board members that Charlene Miller, another member of the board, had expressed her disappointment that her daughter hadn’t been hired at Perry Central. A week later, during another special called meeting on June 15, the board again met and hired a new board attorney. Amis said that he knew then that there was some friction with the board when its members again retreated into executive session to determine whether or not he was working under a valid contract.
Other than issues with communication between himself and the board, Amis claims that board members had never approached him about their displeasure with his job performance, adding that it was quite the opposite.
According to each of the minutes from the board’s meetings from January through May of this year the board didn’t raise any issues at any open meetings. And during evaluations in 2011, the board provided Amis with positive overall reviews. Amis also provided a copy of a letter dated Jan. 11, 2012 and signed by Miller, recommending him for Superintendent of the Year.
Amis said it was obvious that something had happened before the June 7 meeting that caused Miller to agree to his removal as superintendent, and the only thing that had happened that he is aware of was the hiring of a new principal at Perry Central, which he said he had no control over once the final three candidates were named.
“The time lines show that … she was obviously upset about her daughter not getting the position at Perry Central, and things, I guess, went south after that,” Amis said, adding that he spoke with Miller a few days after the meeting in June and he could tell that she was upset, but assumed whatever the issue was, it was one that they could have worked through.
“Based on the evaluation and the letter that Charlene wrote to the Kentucky School Board Association in January, I thought that we had a pretty good working relationship,” Amis continued. “I understand that people are going to disagree, that’s just human nature and things, but I didn’t think it was to the point that they would consider trying to terminate my contract.”
But even if there was an issue with one of the board’s members, the board would have still needed a four-vote majority to terminate Amis’s contract. He noted that despite a majority of the board voting to extend his contract for the past several years, board member Jerry Stacy had never voted with that majority, and members Debbie McIntosh and James Ritchie, while voting previously to extend the contract, worked closely with each other.
“I know Charlene is really close to Debbie. They’re really close friends,” Amis said. “She’s obviously close to James. But as far as them voicing concerns and addressing things within my evaluation and stuff, it never took place.”
On Tuesday Miller acknowledged that in January she did write a letter of recommendation on behalf of Amis. But while declining to comment on the specifics, she also acknowledged that there were details of his job performance that came to light earlier this year that had nothing to do with her daughter’s employment and ultimately led to her voting to accept his retirement.
“My daughter had nothing to do with this,” Miller said. “It was job performance on his part, and he knows that. There’s four other board members. I didn’t do anything by myself.”
Board members Jerry Stacy and James Ritchie on Tuesday also declined to comment on the specifics, but agreed that the hire at Perry Central did not factor into any decision the board had made in regard to Superintendent Amis.
“The accusation that that had anything to do with this is false,” Stacy said.
Amis noted that several people encouraged him to challenge the board and force them to vote for his termination, but he felt the best thing would be to opt for early retirement rather than enter into a potential legal battle that could “disrupt our district and hinder our educational process.”
“I have a good retirement and I thought it would be easier for me to just step away and start my retirement a little sooner than I originally planned and allow the board to move on with finding a new superintendent,” he said. “I want nothing but the best for this school district and I wish the new superintendent and our district success.”
Chairman John C. Combs acknowledged last week that there were some problems, but declined to comment specifically on the details that led to Thursday’s unanimous decision by the board to accept Amis’s retirement. He added, however, that he considered Amis’s retirement as the best possible outcome for the district.
“We wish Mr. Amis well,” Combs said. “We just want to put all of this behind us and move on.”
Stacy, who indeed had voted against extending Amis’s contract since becoming a board member in 2009, remarked following Thursday’s meeting that the board was prepared to consider terminating Amis’s contract, adding that the best thing for the district now is to move on, choose a new leader for the district and focus on education.
“We can begin to start moving forward, going in a different direction,” Stacy said. “We’ve got a lot of hard work to do. We didn’t get in this mess academically overnight, we’re not going to get out of it overnight.”
Amis’s retirement rather than termination is the best resolution for the district, said Ritchie, who sees a vacancy in the superintendent’s position as a turning point.
“I think this was the best way out,” he said. “We were prepared to take other action if we had to; we didn’t have to. This is a good way out, and I think this is a great time for the Perry County School System. We’re going to go forward.”
The board will now be tasked with finalizing a decision on an interim superintendent, who will likely serve until the end of the school year, and then a permanent replacement to take over the district on July 1, 2013. Stacy said he expects the board to move quickly in beginning that process.
“We’re going to do our dead level best to find the absolute best superintendent to lead our district,” he said. “We have to go in a different direction. That’s what we’re going to be solely focused on, to get the very best person we possibly can.”
Ritchie added that whoever is eventually hired should have academics as the number one focus for the district, and it should be someone who can effectively work to improve student achievement.
“We want somebody that’s going to be solely and entirely, 100 percent to get the best education we can,” he said. “As everybody knows our high school (Perry Central) is a PLA school right now. We’re wanting to get that behind us. Our top three things should be education, education and education. If we can’t do that, then we’re not doing our job.”
For his part, on Nov. 1 Mr. Amis will leave behind a nearly 30-year career in the Perry County School District. Prior to his hiring as superintendent in 1994, he also worked as a teacher and basketball coach at his alma mater, Buckhorn High School. He said while there were some difficulties during his tenure, he enjoyed his time as superintendent and noted several past board members with whom he worked the he considered dedicated members of the board, including John C. Combs, George Engle and Paul Alexander.
“I’m not leaving here bitter, wanting the district to fall, that whoever succeeds me to be a failure,” he said. “Nothing could be farther from the truth. We’ve got great employees, great parents, great students and a great community. It’s a great place to work. I don’t have any regrets about the experience I’ve had as superintendent. There’s been some tough times, but overall it’s been a great experience.”