Education

How the Fort Worth district’s handling of a former football coach became a campaign issue

Superintendent Kent Scribner talks to trustee Tobi Jackson as the board takes up a strict ethics policy in 2017. Jackson is seeking a third term on the Fort Worth school board on May 4.
Superintendent Kent Scribner talks to trustee Tobi Jackson as the board takes up a strict ethics policy in 2017. Jackson is seeking a third term on the Fort Worth school board on May 4. mfaulkner@star-telegram.com

The case of a former Eastern Hills High School football coach accused of an improper relationship with a student — who later recanted her allegations — has emerged as a campaign issue in the District 2 race for Fort Worth school board.

The contest is between Tobi Jackson, the school board president, and former Eastern Hills High School principal Chad McCarty. Voters will decide on May 4 who will represent the east Fort Worth area that includes Polytechnic and Eastern Hills high schools.

Both are educators and homegrown graduates of Fort Worth schools. Jackson is a two-term trustee who has long described herself as a former school teacher and champion for children. But she is followed by her vote in 2016 to not terminate the former coach, Johnnie Cole.

Cole is a former Texas Southern University football coach who landed a job at Eastern Hills in 2013. His hiring and subsequent issues that followed created a complicated political discourse that requires delving into school district records and a series of events that culminated in May 2016 with a vote by the school board not to terminate Cole.

McCarty is a former TCU football player who built a career in education that included principal at Eastern Hills High School. His school board candidacy has pushed the Cole case into the public eye again as it was McCarty who first reported allegations against Cole to the district.

During the 2014-2015 school year, Cole was accused of having an improper relationship with an Eastern Hills student. An internal report by the school district’s Office of Professional Standards said the student told an investigator that Cole had sex with her, had friends threaten her with retaliation and suggested that she work as a prostitute.

Although no criminal charges were filed, the internal report — which was presented to the Fort Worth school board in May 2016 — said investigators found “reason to believe” that Cole engaged in the improper relationship.

The superintendent recommended that Cole be terminated at two separate board meetings, according to the district.

Cole referred questions to his attorney, who didn’t immediately return a request for comment. Cole continues to work for the district’s athletic department at Wilkerson-Greines Activity Center.

Jackson has maintained that Cole’s termination should have been handled by Superintendent Kent Scribner or McCarty because the former coach was a probationary employee. But the district said state laws and school district policies place that responsibility in the hands of the school board.

“Mr. McCarty hired and managed Johnnie Cole. I did not,” Jackson told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on April 3. “I did not know Johnnie Cole until he arrived on the Eastern Hills campus as an offensive coordinator. Wow, I didn’t know anything.”

But records show McCarty did not hire Cole. He was hired four days before McCarty was promoted to principal at Eastern Hills in August 2013.

When allegations of improper conduct surfaced, McCarty said he documented the issue and turned it over to the district’s Office of Professional Standards.

“You err on the side of caution,” he said. “You get the information, and you turn it over to the people who are supposed to investigate.” McCarty said.

A recommendation to terminate

Cole was a quarterback for Texas Southern in the 1980s. In 2011, he was fired as Texas Southern’s football coach during an NCAA investigation. He ended up in Fort Worth, where he has strong Texas Southern connections.

Trustee T.A. Sims, a Texas Southern alumnus, praised Cole’s leadership in an undated letter of recommendation in his personnel file, records show.

McCarty said Cole was placed on the Eastern Hills campus by district personnel as empty slots were being filled at the beginning of a school year — a practice that doesn’t raise eyebrows as the district tries to begin a new school year fully staffed.

Cole’s hiring raised questions in 2016.

Records indicate that Cole was hired by the district on Aug. 19, 2013. His one-year probationary contract for alternatively certified intern teacher was signed by former superintendent Walter Dansby and former board president Christene Moss.

McCarty’s one-term contract as principal was signed on Aug. 23, 2013, by Dansby and Trustee Judy Needham on behalf of the school board, records show.

“He was hired and when I became principal he was in a slot,” McCarty said, describing how Cole was already in his post when the district hired McCarty as principal of Eastern Hills.

After the internal investigation, Cole’s probationary contract went before the board with a recommendation to terminate from Scribner.

The district maintains that neither the superintendent nor the principal is authorized, under the Texas Education Code and board policy, to fire an employee who is employed under a contract, such as teachers and principals.

“Mr. Cole was a Chapter 21 probationary contract, which can only be terminated by the Board,” the district stated in an email, referencing school district policies.

One policy states that any probationary contract employee may be discharged at any time for good cause as determined by the board, the district states. “Good cause” is the failure to meet the accepted standards of conduct for the profession as generally recognized and applied in similarly situated school districts in Texas, according to the district.

On May 10, 2016, trustees voted 5-3 to not terminate Cole’s contract, and he was later reassigned to an off-campus position. Jackson, Moss, Sims, Judy Needham and Ann Sutherland voted not to terminate the contract. Trustees Ashley Paz, Jacinto Ramos and former board member Matthew Avila voted to terminate. Trustee Norman Robbins was not present for the vote.

Jackson said the board’s job is to protect kids and be good fiduciaries. She said the fact that Cole had sued Texas Southern, his former employer, factored in the vote.

“When it was brought to us and there was no evidence, we did the best thing we could,” Jackson said. “Five of us had the guts to put him somewhere where he is not around kids so if any of these stories that were recanted were true, he was no longer around kids, and we didn’t get the district sued.”

Cole’s job title is listed as teacher, special assistant, with a salary of $71,668. His name is listed on the athletic department page of the district’s website under the “tickets and facilities” section for the Wilkerson-Greines Activity Center.

“We sent this employee to a site where he wasn’t around students in an overabundance of caution,” Jackson said.

On Thursday, Cole referred questions related to this issue to his Houston attorney, Brooks Harrison. Harrison didn’t return a request for comment.

In 2016, Harrison told the Star-Telegram that Cole refutes the claims and pointed to a sworn statement in which the young woman recanted.

‘A product of FWISD’

As early voting begins Monday, both candidates find themselves showcasing their east Fort Worth ties, including those that link them to the district’s “Johnnie Cole” case.

Political talk about the Cole case was starting to turn to questions about why McCarty left his principal’s post in 2017, so McCarty said he addressed the rumors at a recent forum. He told the audience that his personnel file with the district includes a “code” because he left after a school year but before his contract ended to start a business.

“I just hit it at the head,” McCarty said. “I just cut off before it even made a story.”

The code flags staff to not hire an applicant until consulting with employee relations, according to the district. It doesn’t mean “never rehire” and it is described by district officials as a pause in the process that allows for consultation with employee relations as to why the code was applied, district officials said.

Sometimes the designation reflects that someone left before the end of a contract. In the case of an at-will employee it can reflect that the district didn’t get sufficient notice. In the past, employees who received the code have been hired back to the district, officials said.

That candidate forum, hosted by the Fort Worth ISD Council of PTAs, allowed both candidates to introduce themselves with self-descriptions that showed their long ties to the community. Both graduated from Eastern Hills High School, saying they are “a product of FWISD.”

The candidates stressed commitment to the east side.

Jackson, 58, described herself as a “native Eastsider” and touched on how teaching adults taught her that more needed to be done in education.

“I love FWISD and I love the city, but most importantly, I love working with families, with the community and with our students,” Jackson said.

McCarty, 39, described how he, too, was moved to act because of the issues students face in east Fort Worth and how he wants to give back. That includes his efforts to help bring job opportunities to students who have struggled to fit in, he said.

“I want to see my kids have a solid future,” McCarty said.

Fort Worth ISD cafeteria workers are concerned the school board is considering outsourcing the high school cafeterias. School board members say there are no plans to do so but cafeteria managers and employees plead their case at the board meeting.

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