Hillsboro graduate Christopher Ford addresses the standing-room-only crowd at Monday night's Hillsboro City Schools Board of Education meeting. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)
Hillsboro graduate Christopher Ford addresses the standing-room-only crowd at Monday night's Hillsboro City Schools Board of Education meeting. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)
Hillsboro Elementary’s halls were alive with the sound of music Monday evening, as members of the Hillsboro High School choir performed prior to the Hillsboro City Schools Board of Education meeting, where the HHS choral director’s future with the school was discussed. The standing-room-only crowd applauded the choir, but there were no cheers after the school board concluded a three-and-a-half-hour long meeting with a 3-2 vote to approve a resolution of intention to consider termination of the employment contract of longtime music teacher David White.

Despite numerous comments Monday from past and present students, teachers and members of the community all in support of White, Hillsboro City Schools superintendent Tim Davis said “there is good and just cause” for the board’s vote. After a nearly two-hour-long executive session, the superintendent recommended that White “be suspended without pay” as the board begins to “consider termination” of the teacher.

According to Davis, the “good and just cause” was due to an incident that occurred on a field trip with choir members to New York City last month. On March 28, Davis said that White “permitted and oversaw the efforts” of a group of Hillsboro students who moved “an automobile that appeared to be parked” in New York City. The incident was filmed by other students and posted to Facebook, the superintendent said.

Davis said that after seeing the video on social media, he called White, who “acknowledged the actions of students and the supervisory role in the effort to move the automobile and added that it was his intent to assist the bus in which the Hillsboro students group was traveling to maneuver on the street.” According to Davis, White agreed it was “poor judgment on his part.”

“Mr. White’s conduct exposed him and the high school students attempting to move the automobile to potential criminal charges,” Davis said.

Davis said that he met with White during a “pre-termination conference,” where White was represented by members of the Hillsboro Education Association. (White had an attorney present during the school board meeting Monday night.) During that conference, Davis said, “Mr. White did not refute the factual allegations against him.”

Davis also alleged “seven separate incidents” on White’s “disciplinary record” dating back to 2014, including “failure to submit in a timely fashion interim grade reports” (which drew many laughs from the crowd); “confiscation of a student’s cell phone in the presence of digital images of Mr. White on the device;” “impromptu and rash actions with students;” “parental complaint regarding inappropriate actions taken by Mr. White at school;” “Facebook postings … with potential bullying nature toward staff members” he was directed to take down; “failure to complete Public School Works safety and failure to adhere to proper protocol regarding taking food from the cafeteria” (which also drew laughs); and “hindering school operations by blocking bus-loading zone with his vehicle.”

The superintendent said that the incident in New York “violated a number of school policies and administrative guidelines,” citing several examples.

“I have serious reservations about Mr. White’s ability to actively carry out his duties as a teacher,” Davis said. “Mr. White’s most recent disciplinary record demonstrates continued examples of poor judgment and unprofessional conduct that negatively impacts the school and the student environment.”

After Davis recommended that the board approve the resolution of intention to consider termination of White’s employment contract, school board members voted 3-2 in favor of the superintendent’s recommendation, with Tom Milbery and Jerry Walker voting no and Larry Lyons, Bill Myers and Beverly Rhoads voting yes. Several students began crying after the board’s vote.

As most of the hundred-plus individuals in attendance stayed until the meeting’s conclusion at 10:22 p.m., Myers thanked everyone for their “civility.”

“We do appreciate the civility with which you all handled this,” Myers said. “We appreciate the emails, and we will continue to do our best to address the situation.”

At the start of the meeting, the choir members who were singing in the hallway filed into the cafeteria to a standing ovation from the crowd of teachers, parents and concerned citizens. Myers, the board president, explained that there would be a limit of six minutes per speaker, with an overall limit of approximately 30 minutes for public comments. Not all of the people who registered to comment actually spoke at the meeting.

Hillsboro graduate Jerry Bailey was the first to speak and explained the circumstances of the incident in New York as he understood them.

“The bus was unable to move due to an illegally parked smart car,” Bailey said. “The bus was partially in an intersection and completely blocking a one-way street. At the suggestion of the bus driver, David White instructed 12 students to exit the bus and move the smart car so the bus could get by. The 12 students were aided by a New York City taxi driver. The students exited the bus, moved the car, entered the bus, exited the bus to move the car again and re-entered the bus once the bus was able to move.

“By moving the car, if the students or David had been cited by the New York City Police Department, the law was broken.”

According to Bailey, Davis and Hillsboro High School principal Joe Turner found out about the incident “via social media” and contacted White, but not the other certified teacher or any of the five chaperones on the trip.

Bailey presented several concerns to the board, including asking, “Why is David the only one being punished?” According to Bailey, the other teacher on the bus was not reprimanded, nor were the students involved in the incident. Bailey also asked why the parents of the students involved in the incident were not contacted; why White was allowed to remain in charge of the students for the remainder of the field trip if there was “a concern for rash behavior;” and why the board approved the field trip if they did not trust White. He encouraged the board to “reject” the recommendation for termination.

Mike Brown, a local pastor and musician whose grandchildren have been taught by White, said that he questioned “the rationale of the harsh treatment” shown to the teacher.

“In business and church, we search for leaders with a true heart for the people and their needs,” Brown said. “In Mr. White, we have found this for our children, and do we throw it all away over a minor misdirection, details of which seem sketchy?

“I do not defend but question the rationale of the harsh treatment given to this fine teacher.”

Brown said that in his experience as a recording artist, White has proven to be “far above your average music director and teacher and a tremendous loss that this community will face if we allow this travesty to take place.”

“Sometimes it is best to reconsider our actions, for many a wrong decision has been made too quickly on emotional assumptions, not the facts,” Brown told the board. “Remember well the community will remember how it goes on this night.”

Next, a group of four chaperones from the field trip addressed the board, led by Linda Vangroll, who spoke on behalf of the group. Vangroll – a Hillsboro math teacher – provided statistics, such as comparing a pedestrian mortality rate to the danger of high school students being killed playing football.

“When you walk down the hallways of Hillsboro High School, you see banners with ethics we want instilled in our students,” Vangroll said. “One in particular reads ‘To solve problems.’

“We the chaperones agreed to a solution that we believed, at that time, posed the least amount of risk based on the situation. We left unhurt and undamaged.”

Several other current and former students also spoke, including Sydney Sears, who said that White’s classroom has been a “safe space” for herself and other students, particularly as she dealt with the loss of a loved one.

“Being able to go to those rehearsals, being able to walk into that choir room, gave me a little break from all of the pain and sadness I was going through,” she said. “David White gave me a passion for music I will carry the rest of my life.

“I could not be more grateful to have David White as a choir director. He’s not only someone that I consider a teacher, but an inspiration and someone that I just love to make proud, and I want to do that every day and strive for me to become the best version of myself. Without him, I probably wouldn’t be standing here today.”

Haven Young said that White’s classroom is “one of the few places I feel safe, valued and heard” as a young black woman.

“Kids like me – kids who aren’t exactly normal around here – need someone like Mr. White,” Young said. “We need someone who can understand us. We need someone who isn’t afraid to talk about the troubles we have gone through and many go through.

“We need someone who believes in us, even if we can’t believe in ourselves.”

Alexandra Martinez Mendez spoke on her behalf as well as reading a statement by a Hillsboro alumna, Meredith Keister. Martinez Mendez called White “a mentor, a teacher and a friend.” Keister’s letter credited White with her success as she prepares to graduate with a master’s degree from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music this spring.

“To lose David White would be to lose potential in every student,” Keister wrote.

After reading Keister’s letter, Martinez Mendez invited current and past chorale members to the front of the room, where they performed the Hillsboro alma mater.

Christopher Ford, another Hillsboro alum, said that hearing that White had been suspended and that choir had been canceled for the remainder of the school year “was heartbreaking for me because I have benefitted so much from what Mr. White has brought to our school.”

“When you graduate, you don’t get a goodbye from Mr. White,” Ford said. “He continues to check up with us and further our success. Mr. White’s been criticized for being too tough on his students. Well, he’s not an average teacher. That’s what makes him so exceptional.”

At that point, the crowd erupted in cheers. Ford received applause on several other occasions during his address, including when he pointed out that the board recognizes the importance of the arts, due to their approval of a large auditorium to be added onto the high school, and that the students in that auditorium “deserve the best so that building can thrive, and that’s Mr. White.”

The final speaker allowed to address the board was Donna Armstrong, a retired teacher, although Myers encouraged those who did not get the opportunity to speak to write to the board.

Armstrong said that overseeing a field trip is “a huge responsibility” and that if she had been there, she probably would have agreed with the decision “and being an old country girl like I am … not even thought too much about it.”

“We’re country people, and therefore, we’re helpful,” she said. “Therefore, they thought it would be helpful to get out and move it.

“I don’t see that this has to be his head on the chopping block for this situation. I’m sorry, but I just don’t think that should happen.”

Armstrong implored the board to “give [White] a chance to stay with Hillsboro High School.”

“Certainly, the pluses outweigh the minuses,” Armstrong said.

In addition to considering White’s employment, the following items were on Monday night’s agenda:

• Turner honored the boys and girls varsity bowling programs, both of whom qualified for the state tournament this winter, and senior Lane Cluff, who finished eighth at the state wrestling tournament. Also honored was a volunteer at the high school, Rose Lewis, whom Turner said was the “kitchen staff’s, custodians’ and the administrators’ best friend” for her hard work and dedication to the school.

• The board approved financial reports; the audit for fiscal year 2018; the amounts and rates for fiscal year 2020 as determined by the budget commission; donations; leaves of absence; the resignation of boys varsity basketball coach Bruce Miles and teacher Ashley Rowland; various contracts; early graduates and the regular 2019 graduates; a resolution to receive bids for the purchase of two new school buses; a recommendation to purchase two new school buses through the Southwestern Ohio EPC from Ohio Cat; and a resolution for continued membership in the Ohio High School Athletic Association.

• Davis reported on recent events, including the Four-County School Board Meeting, during which the district received multiple awards; the annual Ernie Blankenship Radio-Telethon, where numerous students made donations; a spring fling dance, musicals and an art show at the elementary school; and the high school musical. Davis also reported that Woolpert Engineering has given the school district a design plan for a new auditorium at the high school, which is expected to seat over 800 people, he said. The superintendent said they “hope to break ground in July” on the project.

• Lyons reported that he and Davis both served on panels for Leadership Highland and Clinton counties and that school funding should remain similar if the current state school funding bill is passed.

Following committee reports, school board entered executive session at 8:17 p.m. to discuss the “appointment, employment, dismissal, discipline, promotion, demotion or compensation of a public employee.” During that two-hour span, choir students held several impromptu concerts, including leading the crowd in the singing of the alma mater once again, as well as performing everything from show tunes to Christmas carols intermittently throughout the next two hours. At 10:11 p.m., the group of high school students gathered for a prayer, and at 10:13 p.m., school board re-entered open session.