By Michael Howell
The Florence Carlton School Board of Trustees took action at an open meeting on Monday, March 18 to suspend Superintendent John McGee for two weeks without pay and place a letter of reprimand in his personnel file regarding multiple acts of plagiarism over a number of years in the school’s newspaper, “Falcon View.”
Last month, during an annual review of the superintendent’s performance, the board considered evidence that McGee had plagiarized a column about the New Hampshire school massacre written by a school administrator in Georgia. McGee replaced references to the Georgia school with references to Florence and it was published in the school newspaper under his name.
McGee never disputed the allegation. In fact, he accepted responsibility for the act and expressed shame and regret for his action. He described it as a situation in which the press of a publication deadline led to an unfortunate lapse in judgment. At that time the board voted to require McGee to write a letter to the Georgia school administrator apologizing for what he did and to publish a correction in the student paper and apologize to the students. McGee did those things.
Then came the new allegations: four more examples of plagiarism by McGee in the student newspaper over the last few years.
“We are all here tonight because we know we have an issue,” School Board Chairperson Pat Appleby told the public gathering at the school gymnasium. “We are going to discuss this tonight and try to put it to rest tonight.”
Appleby acknowledged that four additional acts of plagiarism had been brought forward and were not being disputed.
“We know that this occurred,” said Appleby. “We know that there was more than one incident. So we are not going to nit-pick through every article. We are going to concede that point and start from there.”
The issue, she said, was simply what action to take.
Trustee Mel Finlay made a motion to hold a hearing to initiate termination of McGee’s employment.
Trustee Vickie Cornish said that she was disappointed with McGee but was not ready to fire him. She said that, after working with him for seven and a half years, she had nothing but admiration for him. She went through a lengthy list of accomplishments over those years in terms of school finances, including boosting the reserve fund from 5 to 9% and pulling in close to $1 million in grants. She said he upgraded many school programs, and made all sorts of improvements in the facilities.
“Mistakes have been made, but I still support him as Superintendent,” said Cornish.
Trustee Dorothy Rhodes said, “John is a caring, giving man, a man of honor and high morals.” She called his action a “lapse of judgment or a stupid mistake,” and added, “It was John’s mistake, he should have caught it.”
Rhodes said that McGee should be disciplined but she believed that what he has already gone through was enough.
“He’s already paid the price,” she said. “I think with discipline tonight, he has paid enough.”
Finlay said, “I’m as sorry as anyone this happened to John. It’s an absolutely terrible thing, but easy to avoid. If we don’t hold him accountable it will lower our standards, I think. There should be consequences. We need to maintain our standards.”
Trustee Mike Greger said, “I do not support termination.” Greger said that he supported the superintendent for all the reasons expressed by Cornish and Rhodes. He said that when he rated McGee for his performance as a superintendent recently that he ranked high in many categories. He said that the plagiarism incidents have overshadowed the good results of McGee’s tenure and deserve discipline, but not termination.
There was a lot of impassioned public comment, both in support of termination and in favor of some lesser discipline.
David McCann, who has two kids in school, said that having made a mistake, McGee is now setting a good example for students about how to admit to mistakes and take responsibility for them.
“Standing up and accepting responsibility is a good lesson,” said McCann. He said that there was a pervasive misconception in the public that you can take things off the internet and use them as your own, but that it is wrong. He said what McGee did was wrong, but did not merit termination.
Others were adamant that the infraction did merit termination.
Former board member Jim Shreve called the act of plagiarism “out and out theft of words.” He said, “If I had an employee that stole from me, two seconds wouldn’t pass before he was fired.”
A few others agreed that serial plagiarism was a serious thing and that termination was appropriate.
Former board member Kevin O’Brien noted that the school’s policy concerning superintendent qualifications states that, “the Superintendent must be of unquestionable moral integrity.”
“He has failed that,” said O’Brien. “So if you are not going to follow your policy, please don’t expect the children to.”
Another refrain heard from the public was that the board had a history of taking a hard line with students, but now appeared to be going soft on the superintendent.
Steve Damron read a letter from his son, who is serving time in Pine Hills correctional facility.
“You denied me the right to a public education. You based your decision on my need to accept responsibility for my actions. I’m doing that in Pine Hills.” He goes on to write that stealing cigarettes or the words of another is wrong.
“No matter what crime it is, it is wrong and should not go unpunished,” he wrote.
Damron said that his son was told to accept responsibility and apologize and he did. He went to court and was sentenced. But when he asked to come back to school he was not allowed.
“You expect mercy and forgiveness when you and your friends are caught doing something wrong, but where was your forgiveness then?” asked Damron.
Bill Hansen said, “I’ve watched you cover things up and push things aside and hold kids’ feet to the fire. It’s time to set an example.”
In the end, the vote to hold a termination hearing was defeated on a 4 to 1 vote. Mel Finlay, who made the motion, cast the only vote in favor of a termination hearing.
A subsequent vote to discipline McGee by suspending him for two weeks without pay and placing a letter of reprimand in his file along with a warning that any future violation would result in discharge was approved unanimously.
McGee will be suspended from March 25 to April 5. His contract with the school district expires at the end of this school year.