The Mississippi Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a decision to fire former New Hope baseball coach Stacy Hester but reversed a 2012 decision made by Lowndes County Chancery Court Judge Dorothy Colom to reinstate Lowndes County Superintendent Lynn Wright as principal of New Hope High School and award him back pay.
Wright was fired from New Hope High School in 2010 for his knowledge of the purchase of a $15,000 lawnmower by Hester, who was also terminated by the Lowndes County School District’s Board of Trustees.
According to court documents, “Hester, once the baseball coach at New Hope High School, was fired for financing a $15,000 fairway mower in the school’s name. Wright was terminated for executing a document purporting to give Hester the authority to bind the school in the purchase. Both appealed their firings to the Lowndes County Chancery Court, which affirmed Hester’s termination and reversed Wright’s, awarding him lost wages. Hester and the school district appeal their respective adverse decisions.”
The Packet previously reported Wright’s termination was upheld by the board on July 27, 2010. He requested an appeal hearing, and a hearing was held on September 10, 2010. In the appeal hearing Wright argued that the school district did not establish “good cause” for his termination. Mississippi Code Section 37-9-59 states that the district must prove an employee guilty of “incompetence, neglect, immoral conduct, intemperance, brutal treatment of a pupil or other good cause.”
The district claimed that Wright “participated in or knew, or should have known, the actions and consequences of his subordinate. Specially, Mr. Wright assisted Mr. Hester in using the Federal Tax Number of the School District. This is against Policy and State Law.”
In his lawsuit, Wright argued that the district “had no proof that he failed to supervise Hester; nor was there any evidence that he had any involvement in the purchase or lease of the equipment or any involvement with securing the school’s tax exemption number…Wright maintains that in signing the Incumbency Certificate he believed he was certifying that Hester was the New Hope High School baseball coach, which in fact was true.”
In her decision, Colom found that “the Board’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence and was arbitrary and capricious. Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla or a suspicion…There is not a scintilla of evidence that Wright was involved in Hester’s scheme to acquire the equipment. There is not a scintilla of evidence that Wright had any involvement in acquiring the school district’s tax exemption number. Nor was there any evidence that Wright failed to supervise Hester. In fact, the only credible evidence before the board was that Hester mislead Wright to obtain his signature on the ‘Incumbency Certificate.’ All of the Board’s findings regarding Wright’s involvement in and knowledge of the purchase of the lawnmower are based solely on suspicion. Thus, the Court finds that the actions of the Board in terminating Wright were not supported by substantial evidence and was arbitrary or capricious.”
Colom’s decision was entered on May 22, 2012. Wright was also awarded $175,000 in back pay, which was appealed by the LCSD school board.
Hester appealed the ruling on the decision to terminate his employment by arguing “the school had no authority to punish him for making a purchase through the booster club, particularly since the school benefitted from the mower while ultimately never having to pay anything for it. He also contends there is no evidence the school’s tax ID number was acquired fraudulently or that its use provided him with any benefit.”
Both appeals were made in July of this year.
In its decision, the court said Wright’s actions regarding the mower were out of the scope of his duties as principal, stating, “Wright admitted he knew the school could not buy the mower, yet he executed a document purporting to give Hester the authority to make such a purchase on the school’s behalf. There is no question that this exceeded Wright’s authority and enabled a serious violation of the school board’s purchasing policy. We conclude that this is sufficient evidence of good cause to support his termination. Since we reinstate the school board’s termination of Wright, we reverse and render the chancery court’s award of back pay.”
Wright could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.
Wright was elected to the office of superintendent in 2011. Mike Halford, who was the superintendent when Wright and Hester were fired, did not seek re-election.