Huntsville City School Board President requests formal censure for board member

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - After more than a year of mediation to come together, the fissure is deepening between the Huntsville City Schools Board of Education members. This week, the board president asked for another board member to be formally reprimanded through censure from both the state superintendent and local school board.

Elisa Ferrell confirmed she sent a notice to Pam Hill, the District 5 representative. It states Ferrell's intent to move ahead with a state and local censure against Hill. Ferrell outlined specific concerns about her accounts of Hill's actions, saying she has put the school system at risk.  Ferrell also sent the documents  to the state superintendent's office, Huntsville City Schools Superintendent Matt Akin, and the other board members.

WHNT News 19 previously reported concerns that the board members' conduct may affect the school system's accreditation. The specific board member, or members, at fault were not mentioned by name in the accreditation report. At the request of former State Superintendent Michael Sentance last spring, the Alabama Association of School Boards provided mediation for the board. Ferrell said this has not worked, and the solutions assigned have not all been followed.

Instead, Ferrell says the behavior she sees from Hill puts the school system in jeopardy and this, she felt, was her best option to stop it.  She stated that it is time for the board to police itself and "ensure one board member is held responsible for her actions and a school system of 24,000 students is not harmed."

The Accusations

In the documents obtained by WHNT News 19 through a records request to the school system, Ferrell alleges that Hill is in violation of the School Board Governance Act, the code of conduct for board members, and the board affirmations each board member signs. She details what she calls "erratic behavior" by Hill, including breaking down in an executive session and phone calls between the two where Hill is in tears.

Ferrell said she has observed Hill "heckling" officials in public, detailing a teacher in-service at the Von Braun Center before the fall of 2017:

"Ms. Hill was acting erratically during the entire event. She started heckling the superintendent, and then the speaker, who had come from Michigan. He was surprised he was being heckled from someone who was sitting on stage and walked over to her. She took the microphone, introduced herself as “Pam Hill, School Board District 5” and then made a deep bow, and waved to the crowd, rotating back and forth from the right to the left. The speaker was fast on his feet and kept going, however it was an embarrassing and unprofessional action for a board member to take towards a guest speaker; especially in front of all 1500 members of our teaching staff."

She also cites community concerns sent to her that Hill has acted in what she calls an "impaired state":

"Recently though, I have been receiving anonymous concerns that Ms. Hill is attending meetings in the community, as well as visiting staff in Central Office, in an impaired state; acting eccentrically and emotionally, and slurring her speech. She has also behaved as if she were impaired in meetings of the Board of Education."

Some of this alleged behavior has taken place at documented board meetings, Ferrell says. She cites one such meeting:

"In the February 1 meeting, Ms. Hill takes a sip of soda from an insulated Yeti type tumbler and says, “it’s just coke.” Her speech slurs, and she gets up and curtseys. She has behaved in this manner at least half a dozen times in the last 6 months."

But behavior is not Ferrell's only concern. She accuses Hill of acting outside her duties as a board member, instead taking on the role of administrator:

"Ms. Hill has gone into schools, observed classrooms, given advice and instruction to staff, and has said she would eagerly do so at every school in the system, even those not in her district. She has posted surveys on Facebook, asking the public to let her know what they don’t like about Huntsville City Schools. She has held meetings with teachers at one of our schools, AAA, where she said she wanted the teachers to tell her everything, presumably about the principal, and asked the principal not to attend. She says she has free reign to do whatever she wishes when she goes to Providence P-8, so she wanders the hall. Ms. Hill frequently crosses the line between governance and administration. Additionally, she has also told Directors of Instruction for Elementary, Secondary and Magnet schools 'you work for me'."

During an interview with WHNT News 19, we asked her to recall Hill's supporters. Many people openly praise Hill and her ability to speak out. We asked Ferrell what she would say to those who believe she is being controlling in this situation against Hill,  a woman who speaks her mind.

"It's perfectly ok to speak your mind. It is perfectly ok. This is not about how you approach people. This is about whether or not you are crossing over and doing someone else's job that has placed the school system in a compromising position," Ferrell stated.

Ferrell's Request

Ferrell has asked the state to censure Hill. She said the Huntsville City School Board will also take a vote after 30 days, at its April 19 meeting, after Ferrell moves to censure Hill locally.

A censure would serve as a formal reprimand from each entity. That, said Ferrell, would mean that Hill could be stopped from running for her seat on the school board again. The state superintendent would have to make that determination after looking into the accusations.

The process is outlined here in the School Board Governance Act.

"I am far more concerned about the image of the school system and the board if we lose our accreditation than I am if we take action against a board member who is coloring outside the lines," Ferrell added.

Hill's Response

Per the procedure in the above Act, the board member others are attempting to censure must be afforded an opportunity to respond "orally or in writing" to the notice that Ferrell sent. This must happen before the vote of the local board of education.

Hill has been responding via her private social media account. She also sent this statement to WHNT News 19: "I have never let Elisa Ferrell dictate my actions, and I'm certainly not going to start now," she wrote. Hill explained in communication with WHNT that she will be addressing the accusations later, within 30 days, and likely at a District 5 meeting scheduled in April.

Board Members React

Board behavior has been in the spotlight recently, even prompting Mayor Tommy Battle to write a letter to two board members, including Hill. In it, he urged them to get along.

This is not the first time Ferrell has contacted the Alabama State Department of Education about Pam Hill. Last year, WHNT News 19 reported that Ferrell had asked the then-superintendent, Michael Sentance, for an investigation into Hill's actions as related to the School Board Governance Act, citing alleged misconduct.

We asked the other board members, and the superintendent, to weigh in on this latest development between Pam Hill and Elisa Ferrell.

Beth Wilder did not return our phone call.

Walker McGinnis explained that he believes this issue is about accreditation.

"We can not afford to lose it," he told WHNT News 19, although he said he does support giving Hill an opportunity to address the concerns Ferrell presented.

"It's unfortunate, the way it came about," said McGinnis. "I wish we could focus on other things." He did not wish to comment on how he may vote during a motion to censure.

Michelle Watkins stated, "I think this is something the board should have discussed." She said that it was not brought before the board members, but something Ferrell did acting on her own. "I am disappointed we did not come together to talk about this," Watkins said.

She added, "This does not portray us in a positive light. It came as a shock to me."

Superintendent Matt Akin declined to comment on the matter.