Just cause? Spotsylvania School Board reps demand answers on superintendent’s firing

by | Apr 26, 2024 | ALLFFP, Schools & Education, Spotsylvania, Uncategorized

As a newly elected Spotsylvania County School Board member, Belen Rodas was not involved in the contentiousness that made national news on a regular basis over the previous two years. 

Rodas received a firsthand view of the argumentative nature of the group during a work session Tuesday night, as a discussion on whether to release the cause of the firing of former Superintendent Mark Taylor became heated. 

Microphones were shut off as board members screamed at each other. Allegations of dishonesty were lobbed at Chair Lorita Daniels by board members Lisa Phelps and April Gillespie. Daniels attempted multiple times to enter recess but was rebuffed because a motion was on the floor. 

Gillespie broke out a megaphone to get her point across once Vice Chair Nicole Cole shut off her mic. 

Rodas was in disbelief. 

“I’m going to pray for the love of God that you guys talk the way you expect our second graders to speak,” she said. “This is embarrassing.” 

The board eventually voted 6-1 to approve Phelps’ motion directing Interim Superintendent Kelly Guempel to make himself available for board members to peruse Taylor’s personnel file to review the causes that led to his dismissal in March. Cole was the lone dissenting vote. 

Five board members are already aware of the causes but said it cannot be released publicly because it is a confidential personnel matter. Phelps and Gillespie said they were not privy to the causes, but their colleagues said that was because they were absent from meetings where the reasons were discussed. 

Livingston District representative Megan Jackson said she voted for the motion because all board members should have access to the information but added that it is not for the public. 

“We don’t have to divulge an individual’s reason for termination,” Daniels said. “Mr. Taylor has all the information regarding the causes.” 

Phelps and Gillespie said they were told by a school board attorney that there are as many as 30 causes to fire Taylor, who signed a contract in 2022 with a base salary of $245,000 per year. The contract included a stipulation that, if he were fired without cause, he would receive three years and eight months of pay. 

Critics of Taylor note that he was hired with no experience in education and he had a personal relationship with former School Board Chair Kirk Twigg.

In addition to Taylor’s lack of experience in education, detractors were concerned about social media posts of his that they considered racist, homophobic, denigrating to public education and espousing a lack of seriousness when dealing with school shootings. 

A minority of the school board at the time opposed the Virginia Board of Education granting Taylor a license, but BOE members who voted in favor of Taylor insisted that superintendent hirings are local decisions.

They granted Taylor a license based on Option IV of the Virginia Code licensure regulations, which allows for licensure of a candidate without education experience if they have a master’s degree or equivalent, three years of senior leadership experience and a recommendation from a Virginia school board, all of which Taylor possessed.

It was widely believed, however, that after three new board members came aboard in November, Taylor would be promptly dismissed.  

Taylor also faced scrutiny after he helped establish a questionnaire on a school portal called ParentVue asking if parents approve of their children having access to sexually explicit content in school libraries. Some parents complained when Taylor had 30 books that he considered to contain sexually explicit material removed from school libraries. 

On Oct. 16, 2023, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia sent a letter to the school division regarding a memo circulated by Taylor that indicated officials were banning books from libraries. In a letter to the school board, the ACLU accused Taylor of misinterpreting Virginia law and violating First Amendment rights. 

Daniels said at the start of the March meeting when Taylor’s contract was terminated that she believed additional cause for his dismissal could be found. But after a closed session that night, Daniels said she was satisfied with the reasons for the termination. 

Gillespie alleged Thursday that attorneys are still digging through emails to find more cause, as Phelps implored Daniels to “bring the cause out.” 

“As a school board member, I have no knowledge of why Superintendent Mark Taylor was fired with cause, but yet we’re paying attorneys to search for cause through employee emails,” Gillespie said. “Why are we doing that if we already fired him with cause?” 

Gillespie went on to question why the board is paying attorneys “boatloads of money” to search for something that had already been decided. 

“This is not being done correctly,” she said.  

Gillespie and Phelps also entered a tense debate with other board members regarding a motion by Daniels to allow the pair access to Taylor’s personnel file after previously telling them nothing was in the file. 

They called Daniels a “liar,” but Courtland District representative Carol Medawar cleared up the confusion by reminding Phelps and Gillespie that there was nothing initially in Taylor’s file. However, information was added following subsequent closed session meetings that they did not attend, Medawar said. 

Gillespie said although she was not present at some of the meetings, as the chair, Daniels should have updated her on Taylor’s dismissal. She said the public is also owed an explanation so that the community can move forward. Before the discussion on Taylor, the board heard from the search firm that is helping to hire the next superintendent. 

“Here we are trying to move forward with a superintendent search, and in my opinion, it seems like we haven’t even properly fired the first superintendent,” Gillespie said. “You’re saying we fired him with cause, but no cause has been provided.” 

In other business, the board voted 5-2 to approve a resolution to adopt a final fiscal year 2025 budget of $440.3 million, including $155.5 million in local funding. Phelps and Gillespie voted against the motion. 

The budget allows for an additional 1% cost of living pay increase for paraprofessionals (on top of the 3% raise required to match the state) and an increase in the daily pay rate for substitute teachers. The maintenance department saved $1 million with energy-efficient improvements, and those funds went towards health insurance for employees. 

“It’s definitely not what we wanted,” Jackson said. “But it’s what we had to do.” 

Subscribe To Daily News Updates

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news from The Free Press

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This