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Tom McCullough
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Signal Mountain Middle/High School Principal Tom McCullough was suspended without pay just weeks before his scheduled retirement.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith suspended McCullough on Friday, two days after his public announcement of plans to retire at the end of his current contract on June 30.

Smith could not be reached for comment Tuesday. But in a letter to McCullough, the superintendent criticized the principal's handling of a school-sanctioned senior trip in which students and staff chaperones were accused of consuming alcohol.

McCullough was not on that trip, and central office administrators said there was no indication that students and teachers drank together.

But Smith said the way McCullough handled the aftermath violated several school system policies, including:

• Failing to immediately report the staff members' consumption of alcohol to central office.

• Violating policy by allowing a classified staff member to go on an overnight trip, opening the district up to overtime compensation of $1,485.65.

• Sharing personnel information in a faculty meeting on April 17, despite calls from the human resources department not to share information with faculty or the general public. Smith noted that McCullough had obtained prior approval to release the information, but noted that he "nevertheless disregarded a specific directive from my designee."

Smith said McCullough downplayed the staff drinking incident, characterizing it in an email as "the other little issue" and "not a biggie."

"Your mischaracterization of this behavior breached your duty as principal to understand and comply with Hamilton County School Board policy," Smith wrote.

McCullough said he is examining what impact the suspension will have on his retirement and isn't sure how he'll proceed. Smith did not draft formal charges, but said he would if McCullough wanted to appeal the decision.

McCullough didn't want to comment on the situation but did release a statement.

"The superintendent has broad powers over personnel in Hamilton County," he said. "He has chosen to exercise those powers and suspend me, a veteran principal with many years of experience, just prior to my retirement."

School board member Chip Baker, who represents Signal Mountain, said he does not know all the specifics behind the suspension. But given McCullough's upcoming retirement, he said, he doesn't believe the policy infractions warranted a full suspension.

"That's just my opinion," he said.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at or 423-757-6249.