An overflow crowd watches from the lobby behind a glass window at the back of the room during the Buford Board of Education meeting on Monday, Aug. 27, 2018, in Buford. It was the first meeting since Superintendent Geye Hamby resigned amid allegations he used racial slurs to refer to black temporary construction workers and threatened violence against them. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Buford school board apologizes over slurs in tape

After complaints from parents and others at Monday’s packed Buford City school board meeting about a lack of transparency, accountability and communication over the former superintendent’s alleged use of a racial slur, the board apologized on Wednesday.

At 5:15 p.m. a letter signed by all five board members was sent to parents apologizing for the actions of former superintendent Geye Hamby, who resigned last week after being placed on leave.

“His language in no way reflects the sentiments of the Board of Education or School District. We recognize the hurt, anger and frustration the events of last week caused our students, parents and community. Racism is not condoned or acceptable in any manner,” the board wrote.

It also announced in the letter that it had appointed Hamby’s replacement. It took that action Monday night — after almost everyone but the board members had already left. The board named Joy Davis, a former assistant superintendent and principal, as interim superintendent and said, “Plans for the new Superintendent search are being developed and will be shared within the upcoming weeks.”

Several hundred people had showed up Monday to speak their mind about a taped conversation in which someone said to be Hamby repeatedly used a racial slur in talking about African-Americans.

The recording was released to the media last week. But many in the community had heard the actual words or had heard about it well before that. Board members said in the open session Monday that they hadn’t heard it before Tuesday, Aug. 23, but all of the board members knew of its existence well before that.

“You have sat there in silence, doing and saying nothing,” said Ben Haynes, who was the first to speak Monday. “The fact that it took four days to place this man on leave is bad enough. Then to let him resign on the fifth day. Truthfully, you should have never been at this point because he should have been fired on the second day,” he said. “It has been one week since this tape was released to the media; one month since you, the board, knew about the tape and two years since it was recorded. I still have not heard or seen anything from anyone on this board regarding this incident.”

Board member Pat Pirkle said Wednesday that a “reliable source” had told her what was in the recording two weeks before she actually heard it.

“I don’t like that kind of language. I don’t use that kind of language,” she said. “It’s a complete embarrassment to the school district and to the city.”

The recording was part of evidence presented in a wrongful-termination lawsuit filed on behalf of Mary Ingram. A paraprofessional at Buford Academy for nearly 18 years, Ingram said she was fired in June of 2017 because she spoke out against the “marginalization of black history.”

The lawsuit was filed on June 27, according to Ingram’s lawyer, Brian Sutherland. But the school district and Buford Academy Principal Kaleen Pulley weren’t served with a summons until July 11. Ingram’s legal team didn’t provide proof of service to the court until July 18. And the school district’s attorney’s didn’t file their response to the lawsuit until Aug. 1.

But Pirkle said the board went into executive session at its July 31 meeting to discuss the lawsuit.

School Board Chairman Phillip Beard contends that none of the board members had heard the recording before Aug. 23.

“We didn’t have it. We would have cleaned it up a long time ago,” he said.

When it was pointed out that the tape was put in a court filing earlier, he responded with: “The lawyers get all this stuff … and they tell us to keep our mouth shut.”

Some Buford residents didn’t buy that excuse.

“My husband and I purchased a home worth over $500,000 and we cannot believed that has gone on for so long. I am originally from Chicago and know this type behavior would have never have been tolerated or accepted,” said parent Michelle Williams after Monday’s meeting. “To add injury to insult, the Buford City School District made it really difficult to gather information and participate in our children’s education. Standing room only at the board meeting, no microphone, no streaming and people standing on the street trying to hear. We have a right to transparency and every effort should be made to accommodate parents who want to be aware of what is happening in the school district.”

As the sweat-soaked attendees left Monday’s sweltering standing-room-only meeting, nobody asked about the remaining items on the agenda.

While standing around speaking with board chairman Phillip Beard and other board members, an AJC reporter was told he had to leave. The board members then went to a back room.

When they emerged, Davis had been named interim superintendent. However, nobody was left to hear the announcement.

“Mr. Beard followed the proper procedures,” Davis said Wednesday. “It’s not his fault that nobody was there to hear it.”

Matt Foster, a city commissioner in Cedartown, about an hour and half northwest of Atlanta, said his school system had a similar incident a few years ago and he wanted to see how Buford is handling it.

“We had a similar situation in Polk County Schools: not overt racism, but we had a Central Office and school board that were way too close and colluded with each other/kept the public/media in the dark,” he said. “I have been in the same shoes as the people in Buford, where you have no confidence in the central office and your elected officials are complicit, and I believe in letting the sunshine in. I also know the right to petition is an enshrined constitutional right not limited to residents and voters of the City of Buford, and this stonewalling leads me and others to believe that perhaps there is more below the surface.”

Richard Griffiths, president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation warns school boards that they’re responsible for teaching children about democracy. “It’s especially disappointing when they don’t make their meetings, agendas, minutes, etc. available to the public,” he said. “They shouldn’t just follow the letter of the law, but they should follow the spirit of the law to make sure the public is fully engaged.”