With only five of eight members present, the Grundy County, Tenn., school board unanimously voted Monday night for Phyllis Lusk as its new chairwoman.
"We're excited to have Ms. Lusk leading the school board," Director of Schools Jessie Kinsey said after the meeting. "She is a retired educator."
Lusk's appointment comes after former Chairman Robert Foster's resignation last month after 12 years on the board.
He resigned amid growing animosity among fellow board members and the director of schools during an investigation of an attempted aggravated rape on Oct. 11 at Grundy County High School and the vandalism of a school board member's vehicle.
The board also voted to approve Kinsey's recommendation to add a phrase in the elementary and high school's handbook about zero tolerance, in order to be in line with Tennessee's law for suspension of students.
The district's zero tolerance policy applies to students who have committed certain offenses including possession of a weapon or illegal substances, battery and/or sexual battery, rape or attempted rape. Punishment listed for those offenses is suspension of up to one year but may include expulsion.
The phrase to be added states the director of schools has the authority to modify consequences on a case-by-case basis. It's already listed in the handbook, but it is not listed in all areas in which zero tolerance is discussed.
The five students who are accused of attempting to rape their freshman teammate with the metal handle of a dust mop are not attending regular classes but are still enrolled at the high school, as of latest reports before a judge placed a non-disclosure order on the case, preventing anyone from discussing any details. They were placed on house arrest and assigned "homebound education."
Another update to the handbook was an amendment to how students qualify for top two academic achievement rankings, including valedictorian. Grundy County High School principal Deidre Helton recommended a student be required to attend the high school for six semesters before their senior year to be eligible for the top two rankings.
Helton said that issue was brought up because a student is graduating early and might have been eligible as first or second place in academic achievement, but the previous policy did not clearly state how to rank a student who is graduating early. Monday night's vote means that student will not be eligible to be placed in the top 10, Kinsey said.
"I think the recommendation from the principal is looking at it from all aspects and trying to be fair as possible," she said.
During a workshop meeting before the regular board meeting, Lusk said she did not think it was good for rules to be changed "in the middle of the stream" at the end of the semester.
Also discussed at the board meeting was the salary for a new football coach. Kinsey said there have been several applicants and she's ready to start interviews, but she hasn't been able to move forward without knowing how much the board is willing to pay a new coach.
Several board members expressed concern about the salary because the new coach likely will not be a teacher. Typically, coaches also serve as teachers, and their salaries reflect that.
Board member Gary Melton suggested moving forward with interviews and letting applicants know the pay is negotiable. He also suggested disclosing how much previous coaches had been paid. Former head football coach Casey Tate was on an "incentive plan," which means his salary was up to $12,000.
Fellow board members asked Kinsey to narrow the applicant list down to three and return for discussions about salary. Kinsey said she plans to have that done by the January board meeting.
Board meetings are typically held on the second Thursday of the month, but Kinsey said December's board meeting was rescheduled to Monday night due to basketball games.
Also, board members voted to again postpone the discussion for the director of school's evaluation. Kinsey's evaluation is two years overdue, Lusk said during the workshop meeting. It was not clear why the evaluation has taken so long.
Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.