Wise County residents turn out to support special education director

Stephen Igo • Nov 13, 2007 at 12:00 AM

WISE — Droves of Wise County citizens and teachers turned out in support of embattled Director of Student Services and Special Education Jerrie Adams on Monday, even as school authorities insisted Adams was never officially removed from her job.

Late last month, Adams was reportedly informed by Wise County School Superintendent Greg Killough she would no longer serve at the head of special education programs for the school division. However, the Wise County School Board apparently had yet to sign off on the administrative decision, even though the matter was discussed in closed session two weeks ago.

After impassioned testimonials about Wise County’s special education department administrators, teachers and therapists, the school board convened again in closed session Monday to discuss personnel and legal issues.

Before citizens made their views known on Adams’ dismissal, School Board Chairman Barry Nelson waved a piece of paper before the standing-room-only crowd, saying it was a school division administration organizational chart, and it has not changed since the beginning of the school year.

Big Stone Gap board member Betty Cornett, however, said she wanted to “reinforce that the director of student services and special education has been removed from her duties.” It was unclear whether Cornett meant that as a statement or a question.

In any event, when asked by the Times-News to clarify whether Adams had been removed from her position — or not — school board attorney Scott Mullins produced a legal policy statement referencing the Code of Virginia.

“The authority of the school board is transmitted through the superintendent along specific channels from person to person as shown in the board-approved organizational chart of the division,” reads the policy. “The superintendent shall conduct an annual review and evaluation of the staff organization of Wise County Schools. Any revisions must be approved by the school board.”

Mullins indicated the controlling language in this instance was the final sentence, and that the school board, prior to Monday’s meeting, had not formally approved any revisions to the organizational chart. That means, contrary to what everyone — including Adams — has been led to believe in the last three weeks, Adams was never officially removed from the post.

Or, she was, but that action had not been formally endorsed by the school board insofar as approving a revision to the administrative organizational plan.

Whatever Adams’ status prior to Monday’s closed session, her supporters took Nelson’s declaration at face value.

Mike Mullins of Wise, elected just last week to a four-year term on the school board, said he was “glad to hear you’ve reinstated (Adams), or whatever it is you’ve done here tonight.”

Ted Thompson of Big Stone Gap, another member-elect of the school board, recited a litany of federal and state laws involving special education and said in spite of the legal maze special-needs teachers must negotiate, Wise County has the best program in the state because of Adams’ leadership.

Thompson and Mullins will begin their terms in January.

David and Heather Volk of Big Stone Gap, parents of a special-needs child, praised Adams and her staff and voiced displeasure at the attempt to oust Adams.

Heather Volk said her child “has Jerrie Adams as his champion” and blaming Standards of Learning test scores of special-needs kids as a reason to remove Adams is “insulting to special-needs children.”

Her husband expressed dismay at an alleged climate of “fear and intimidation” he has heard abounds across the school division.

“Are we really that frightened about being held up to public scrutiny?” Volk asked in reference to his inquiries into Adams’ status. “Don’t tell me I don’t have a vested right to question personnel decisions that affect my little boy.”

Volk said “simply stating it is in the best interest of the school system is not an explanation, but an excuse.”

Tim McAfee, a well-known Wise County attorney and former commonwealth’s attorney who has also served the commonwealth as a special prosecutor, is the father of an autistic child. McAfee said highest quality leadership and love “filters down from the top” from Adams.

McAfee said Adams was being used as a scapegoat. He also said a “tyrannical and hostile climate has been generated recently in this school system” and “something sinister” is afoot in the Central Office.

“I am not going to let it happen,” McAfee said of Adams’ removal or reassignment or whatever her status was designed to be by the administration, if not by the school board.

Paul Kuczko, director of the Lonesome Pine Office on Youth and a member of the county’s special education advisory board, said the school division’s special-needs program possesses “great leadership” that carries out its responsibilities “with dignity, love and caring.”

Suzanne Lawson, who retired as the school division’s special education director in 2003, said Wise County has one of the best programs in Virginia. Since her retirement, Lawson said she works for an independent consultant asked to assess and recommend improvements for such programs in Virginia.

Lawson said she has served in that capacity in Lee, Dickenson, Buchanan, Tazewell, Grayson and Washington counties, but never Wise County, because no problems exist to iron out.

Cathy McLanahan of the Virginia Education Association said the Adams issue spotlights recent claims of “fear, stress and frustration” voiced by Wise County teachers and reminded the board that it “behooves you to investigate why there is fear and intimidation” in the school division.

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