Knox County’s Lemon of a Law Director

In Perspectives by Joe Sullivanleave a COMMENT

Knox County Law Director Bud Armstrong has managed to create doubt about the legality of the school board’s recent renewal of Superintendent Jim McIntyre’s contract where none exists.

Armstrong’s contention that state law is “ambiguous” about the school board’s authority to do so is just the latest example of inept and devious conduct on the law director’s part. Ever since Armstrong suddenly started attending school board meetings last year, he’s been a politicized thorn in the side of McIntyre and a supportive majority of board members.

So much so that board chair Doug Harris didn’t even look to Armstrong for preparation of the new four-year employment contract that extends McIntyre’s term of office for two years until the end of 2019. Harris proceeded on his own, he told the News Sentinel, because, “This situation has caused me to lower my confidence in the law director to the point of hiring and paying for my own counsel in order to perform the job I was elected to do.”

During the Nov. 30 board meeting at which the board approved the contract by a 5-4 vote, Armstrong opined that it could be invalidated because of ambiguity as to whether it represented an extension of McIntyre’s existing contract beyond the four years permissible under state law.

This caviling on Armstrong’s part might have had some legalistic merit if the board had simply approved an extension of the superintendent’s existing four-year contract. But plainly it did not. The new one states that, “This contract shall replace and supersede any earlier employment agreements between KCBOE {Knox County Board of Education] and the Superintendent.” And the existing contract also provides that, “This contract may be terminated by mutual agreement of the parties,” which is precisely what the new contract did to the old one.

This very same language has governed several previous extensions of McIntyre’s term, which have occurred upon a favorable board review of his performance that he’s gotten annually ever since he first took office in 2008 with a four-year contract.

Upon board approval of McIntyre’s preceding contract in 2013, Deputy Law Director David Sanders signed an obligatory proviso to the document attesting that it is “approved as to legal form and correctness.” But this time around, without even notifying the school board, Armstrong penned the word “NOT” in front of the attestation before signing the document himself.

The “NOT” set off a two-hour swirl of confusion and consternation when the contract went before County Commission for review at its Dec. 14 work session. Under the terms of a 2003 court settlement agreement between the two bodies, Commission is required to approve school board contracts “if the County Executive has insured that all proper procedures have been followed regarding availability of funds, legal compliance, and bid process compliance.”

In the absence of such assurances, the contract seemed on the verge of foundering over doubts about its legality. But Armstrong may have saved the day when he eventually advised that, “It’s a legal contract. All I’m saying is that certain provisions may not be enforceable. But the contract has a severability clause. So anything that may be unenforceable does not void the contract.” What went unsaid, in a double entendre on the word sever, is that without the two additional years of severance pay to which McIntyre would be entitled if he is removed from office, the new contract wouldn’t mean much. In the end, commissioners cast a meaningless vote against the contract with the understanding that they had no authority to block it,

County Mayor Tim Burchett has remained conspicuously silent in all of this. Until recently, he might well have seized the opportunity to stick it to McIntyre of whom he’s been highly critical in the past. But their relationship has clearly become more amicable since they entered into a wide-ranging memorandum of understanding on school-budget matters last spring.

Burchett looms large in the equation because the 2003 settlement agreement leaves it solely up to him to verify the legality of school contracts and further provides that “failure to verify within ten days [after submission by the school board] shall constitute an automatic verification.” That’s what has happened and pulls one of Armstrong’s legs out from under him.

The State Attorney General’s office pulled the other when it spurned Armstrong’s request for an opinion on his assertedly ambiguous question of whether the school board permissibly renewed or impermissibly extended the superintendent’s contract. Instead, the AG’s office responded that “your question has been addressed and answered by the Tennessee Court of Appeals in Heatherly v. Campbell.” In that 2005 decision, the court ruled that a “renewal requires an affirmative recreation or replacement of the legal relationship.” And that’s exactly what happened in the case of McIntyre’s new contract.

What makes Armstrong seem devious in all his machinations is that he’s known to be beholden to East Knox County’s political boss, Knoxville Focus publisher Steve Hunley, who has long been out to get rid of McIntyre. Cutting short the superintendent’s contract is one means to that end, especially at a time when another McIntyre critic, Tony Norman, is running unopposed to succeed Harris, who is bowing out, in next year’s election. That could swing the school board to a 5-4 anti-McIntyre tilt come September. But a buyout cost of more than three times his $227,000 annual salary would still be a big impediment to his removal.

Joe Sullivan is the former owner and publisher of Metro Pulse (1992-2003) as well as a longtime columnist covering local politics, education, development, business, and tennis. His new column, Perspectives, covers much of the same terrain.

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