A 70-year-old Beebe special education teacher who was going to begin her 15th and final year of teaching this year but never started because of health concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic said Wednesday that she is requesting a public hearing on the school district’s recommendation to terminate her.
Paula Heffington attended the Beebe School Board meeting Monday, but no action was taken concerning her employment with the district. Then, on Wednesday, she received a letter from Superintendent Dr. Chris Nail that he would be recommending her dismissal to the board.
On Tuesday, Nail issued the following statement to The Daily Citizen regarding Heffington: “The Beebe School District’s top priority is student and staff safety. The district is proud of the 415 employees who come to work every day and serve our students. The district has followed and will continue to follow all guidelines from the Arkansas Department of Health, CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and Department of Education concerning safety for students and staff. Due to this being a personnel issue, under state law, the Beebe School District has no comment concerning the situation.”
Heffington said the letter she received Wednesday was dated Sept. 18, “but what was strange about this was, every other letter I have gotten from him that was registered, I also got an email. I did not get an email about this. It’s almost like they didn’t want me to know until after Monday” when the School Board meeting was held.
The letter, Heffington said, referenced Arkansas Fair Dismissal and the reasons listed for her recommended dismissal were for “material neglect of duties and other just and reasonable cause and that on Aug. 20 she refused her teacher assignment despite the district’s best efforts to provide reasonable accommodations.”
The letter said since Aug. 24 she has failed to report to work and otherwise fulfill her contractual obligations. Heffington said the letter said she had a right to request a hearing in writing by certified or registered mail or delivery in person to the School Board president, vice president or secretary with a copy to Nail within 30 days of receiving the letter.
The letter said the hearing could be public or private but Heffington said she wants a public one. She may be represented by an attorney or other persons as may the School Board.
Asked about the accommodations the district offered, Heffington said she was offered her own portable building where “the kids come in and out.” But she said that doesn’t solve the issue of the students being exposed to the novel coronavirus.
“No matter what they say, if you go to two different places, you have double exposure, and that is not a good idea for me,” Heffington said.
The district also said it would have her middle school classroom and her other classroom the district wanted her in “cleaned regularly,” she said.
Heffington said she will try to find a lawyer but doesn’t know how that will go. She also said supporters have mentioned setting up a GoFundMe account for her.
Heffington said when she first started teaching she went between two schools for one year, and that was fine then because there wasn’t a pandemic. All the following years, she said she remained teaching at the middle school in McRae.
Heffington said she got her classroom ready for this school year and attended open house on Tuesday but not on Thursday. She said at their own expense, her husband made her a plexiglass shield for her desk and another one on rollers so she could get in front of the classroom and teach.
“I have been considered an excellent math teacher for special ed because I don’t teach the way all the other special ed teachers do. I believe all children can learn,” she said.
Heffington said on that Wednesday she went shopping with her husband in Conway and received a phone call from Tyler Reed, the middle school principal who told her there was going to be a change of plans. She said she was told by Reed that she would only be at the middle school three periods a day and then would go over to the junior high because she had the most expertise and experience.
Heffington said she had heart surgery early this year and had stayed seven days in the hospital, and she said the district was aware of this. She also said she is on a lot of medication. Rheumatoid arthritis also is something Heffington said she deals with.
“I have worked in severe pain and never missed a beat,” she said.
The next day, Reed, according to Heffington, said, “‘I will need you to write a letter of resignation’ and I said, ‘I’m not resigning; I’m not going to write one.’ and he said, ‘Well, ‘I can type one for you; it just has to be simple.’”
“He typed one up and put it by the secretary and I said, ‘I’m not signing that.’ I went on up to my room, started packing stuff and people were helping me,” she said. “He brought it [the resignation letter] up there and laid it on the table and said, ‘Here’s this paper I need you to sign for me,’ and I said, ‘I told you I’m not going to sign it.’
“So I went home. I wasn’t going to go back to school cause had I went back to school, I would have automatically assumed that I was going to go between two school rooms and I’m not going to.”
Heffington said people just told her to call in and use her sick days and that’s what she did, using about 10 of them that she had. The day she told Reed she wasn’t going to go between two classes, she said the district had a check for her and she said, “‘No, I’m not taking it.’
“They pay a month in advance. I am not going to go between two schools and I’m not taking it if I don’t deserve it and have to pay it back. And he said they will owe you. … I said, ‘You all figure it out and if you can’t figure it out I will be all right.’”
Heffington said she sent a request to speak before the School Board and got in touch with an educational representative from the Arkansas Teachers Association. She sent Reed and Nail a letter asking for a meeting to discuss her health issues and why she felt like they were being unfair to her.
Heffington said the representative came with her to the meeting and Reed asked Heffington what she needed as far as accommodations. She told him she wanted her classroom back and wanted to be at the middle school all day and she wanted to be left alone so she could teach her kids. She said she told them they knew she has health conditions and a doctor’s note, which she sent to Nail and Reed.
Heffington said Reed did not have a lot to say in their meeting and she told him he shouldn’t be taking any of her days away from her because he “started this.”
She said she received a letter from Nail saying the district wanted her to return to school and that she would be safe. She wrote back saying the day of their meeting with Reed, one of the teachers had to go home because she came in contact with a custodian that was positive for COVID-19.
Last Thursday, Heffington received a letter from Nail, informing her she had not been at work since Aug, 20 and informed her that she was sent a letter Sept. 9, detailing accommodations the district would make for her so she could perform her duties. Nail wrote that Reed had contacted her Sept.14 and she advised him she was not returning to work.
“Accordingly, I am going to ask the Beebe School Board to accept your resignation at its board meeting on Monday, Sept. 21,” Nail wrote. “If your decision to not return to work is not a resignation, then I will ask the board to terminate your contract, but please let me know before Monday so I can issue a termination letter in accordance with applicable law.”
At the Monday night meeting, which was virtual in the professional development room, Heffington’s situation was not discussed and no executive session was held for personnel.
Heffington said she sent Nail a registered letter requesting a meeting and received a letter back from him, stating that he and School Board President Jason Smith looked it over and denied her. Heffington said she will try to find a lawyer even though she can’t afford one.
“I will be 71 in December,” she said. “This was going to be my last year to teach. This was going to be my nest egg.”
Darla Campbell, who has a daughter whom Heffington taught, told The Daily Citizen, “I am so disappointed and ashamed of the treatment that this wonderful educator is receiving from our school.”
In a text to Smith, Campbell said, “I can assure you that this is not an issue that will be swept under the rug. Beebe Public Schools will not fare well if the practices concerning the Special Education Department are investigated. I have personally had to fight in order to get my daughter the services needed to assist her in learning and it is exhausting! It should not be difficult! ...
“Ms. Heffington was instrumental in assisting us in expressing to Mr. Reed, the need for a paraprofessional to assist Dalee [Campbell’s daughter]. It was clear that he was not happy with the request, but he conceded. It was also very clear that Mt. Reed was not happy with Ms. Heffington’s involvement in supporting Dalee’s need for a paraprofessional.
“I honestly believe that the last-minute decision to require her to travel between two campuses during this pandemic was strategic. He knew that his request of her would be poorly receieved and I believe that is why he chose her. There were other special education teachers with her same qualifications who are younger and healthier that he could have assigned this duty. When she expressed the concern over her health and provided a doctor’s note in support of her concern, he should have given the assignment to another teacher.”
Campbell wrote that Heffington “should be praised for her hard work and dedication to the district’s students who are the most undeserved and overlooked. She is a wonderful teacher and we should be begging her not to retire next year. Her termination should not even be under consideration.”
Heffington said, “I have already won because the people have been amazing.” She said her reputation as a teacher cannot be tarnished. “The only thing they are doing is tarnishing their own reputation.”
Reached on Tuesday, Nail said, “Hopefully, at some point there will be some resolution and we will be able to see both sides of the story.”