Former Huntsville School District Assistant Superintendent Cheryl Gall was never informed why the Huntsville School Board voted to send her home with pay, effectively buying out her contract for the rest of school year. And Gall stated, through her attorney, that she wants to “abide by the terms of her contract. She wants to do her job. She is ready and willing and able” to return to work, according to Kristin Pawlik, Gall’s attorney.
The Huntsville School Board went into executive session on Sept. 23 but without stating its purposed for doing so, which is against the law as it is a violation of the Freedom of Information Act. After two-and-one-half hours, it reassembled but took no vote or action.
Pawlik suspects that during the secret session, the school board discussed Gall’s employment. Because the next day, Gall was told by Huntsville School District Superintendent Dennis Fisher that he had been instructed by the board to either demand Gall’s resignation or terminate her. Fisher informed Gall that she had until 4 p.m. to decide whether or not to resign.
That same day, Pawlik wrote an email to Charles Harwell, the Huntsville School District attorney, informing Harwell that her client “declines to resign. She remains confident in her ability to perform her duties in accordance with her contract and in line with District policies. She looks forward to continuing to work with Mr. Fisher to increase student achievement in all areas while upholding the core values of the Huntsville School District.”
Within an hour, Harwell responded to Pawlik by email and stated that he had let the district know that Gall would not be resigning. His email stated, “Your client does not need to appear today. I am authorized to confirm that she is relieved of her duties and responsibilities under her contract with the Huntsville School District. The District will honor its portion of the contract and pay her in periodic fashion that she has agreed to until the end of the term of her contract, June 30, 2020.”
The next day, Sept. 25, the school board in a special-called meeting voted to relieve Gall of her duties as assistant superintendent. After the board made its decision, Gall was again not given a reason for being relieved her of her duties.
“I would surmise that the district is having a hard time breaking her contract and that they are just sidelining her,” Pawlik said. “If they could have provided her a reason, they would have. Instead, they told her not to do her job.”
According the HSD School Board President Danny Thomas, the decision to remove Gall was based upon “performance and personality conflict in some areas.”
Mr. Pawlik disagrees. “Mr. Thomas’ statement is a surprise and an offense to her (Gall) because she was performing her duties as she was hired to do,” Pawlik said.
“Cheryl was surprised to learn that a board member reported that she was relieved of her duties because of performance issues. She believes there is zero evidence to support that claim. It’s her understanding that she had the full support of the superintendent even after the board ordered him to ask for her resignation or fire her. Ms. Gall declined to resign. There is no buyout. She remains an employee, albeit she is not permitted to perform any duties for which she was hired. To do that job, she had to take on the role of change agent, which included having difficult conversations about where the district is currently, academically and financially, as well as the future needs of the district. She started that conversation and was sidelined for it,” Pawlik stated.
According to Thomas, the decision to relieve Gall of her duties was a board decision and not supported by Fisher. The Record reached out to Fisher, but he did not respond to the request for comment. The Record also asked Harwell for a comment, and he said he had no comment on the situation.
Thomas stated that the board members were receiving a lot of feedback from people within the district. “It was coming to us in a flood from inside the district,” he stated.
“We had 25- and 20-year veteran teachers and faculty ready to leave us because of a personality conflict and the attitude that they received from Ms. Gall,” Thomas stated. “You know, we’ve got primary teachers and kindergarten teachers that give their heart and soul for our kids and our schools. And they got all of the assessments of (the students) taken away from them, as far as reading and math. They couldn’t effectively communicate with the parents because of that,” Thomas said. “They got crippled with lesson plans and more plans during the day that they can’t physically do,” and didn’t have time to teach.
Thomas said there were “way too many issues. We didn’t want to jeopardize losing our patrons that have been here for years over one hire.”
He also stated that he was “not trying to hurt Gall’s reputation in any way. But it was a plain-and-simple situation that she was not a good fit for our district and our community.”
However, Pawlik said that Gall had never received any feedback or helpful advice about the issues discussed or identified by Thomas.
Gall did not take any assessments away but rather wanted to use different assessments next year, Pawlik said. The schools this year had complete autonomy on what assessments would be used.
Pawlik stated part of Gall’s job concerned curriculum and that Gall was asked “to give direction and had to have hard conversations about what needs to be changed for the benefit of the students. … Sometimes it’s hard to have those conversations.”
Pawlik said Gall was not afraid to have the hard conversations needed in order to improve the students’ performance. “She did have to have tough conversations with teachers about the negative trajectory of the test scores year after year across the board in reading, math, English, and science.
“And she had to provide guidance as to where they (the teachers) could go for resources to evaluate the kids rather than wait for those results from one standardized test each year.”
Pawlik said that those conversations “might have resulted in additional work and that’s her job. If the district is going to turn things around or certain grades are going to turn things around and stop going downhill, it will have to make changes.”
She said it was disappointing that the district would not make those changes for the betterment of the districts’ students.
Gall anticipated some resistance to the changes suggested, but that she was not given the opportunity to address the school board to explain that “resistance is normal and is not a personality conflict,” Pawlik said. Gall knows that if given the time, Pawlik said, she could have built the test scores and shown the progress and those that had not bought in probably would have. “It eventually takes time.” Pawlik also said the board was not getting feedback from the majority but only about one-third of the district employees.
Pawlik said Gall only had 47 to 49 days to make any changes. Gall was hired by Fisher on July 8, 2019. Fisher began his job on July 1, 2019.
Thomas said rather than reassign Gall, it was better to send her home with pay. “The board felt as though it was damage control,” Thomas said. “There was too much muddy water for it to be able to be put behind us.”
Thomas said in making its decision, the board considered the expense of paying someone $93,000 a year but not receiving any work in return. But, he stated that after Dean of Students Randy Barnhill resigned and the district decided not to fill that position, the board realized it was saving Barnhill’s salary and could then afford to send Gall home with pay.
He stated that saving Barnhill’s salary made the payment to Gall “a wash.” He said the board has determined that it will not hire someone next year for Barnhill’s position, saving the district approximately $70,000.
Barnhill resigned amid allegations that he exchanged text messages – detailing HHS football teams’ signals, plays and directions – with Bryan Hutson, head coach of Elkins football team. The HHS Eagles played the Elkins Elks the Friday after the messages were exchanged and HHS lost the game 35-0.