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Dr. Brian Clayton

Judge dismisses lawsuit that sought to invalidate hiring of new Hartselle superintendent 

By Eric Fleischauer 

For the Enquirer  

A Morgan County circuit judge Jan. 20 dismissed a lawsuit that sought to invalidate the hiring of a new Hartselle City Schools superintendent, but the lawyer for the parent who filed the lawsuit asked the court to reconsider the ruling. 

The lawsuit by Hartselle resident Bruce Wilhite asked the court to nullify a Nov. 15 school board decision authorizing contract negotiations with Brian Clayton as superintendent and a Dec. 13 board meeting appointing Clayton. The complaint alleged the school board violated the state Open Meetings Act and board policy during the hiring process. 

The trial in the case took place Jan. 3 and the court ordered both sides to file post-trial briefs by 5 p.m. this past Friday. 

Judge Stephen Brown issued his order at 8:40 p.m. Friday. 

He rejected Wilhite’s argument that the school board had interfered with his parental rights by hiring Clayton, noting that “plaintiff has full legal and physical custody of his children,” who attend Hartselle City Schools. Brown also noted that Wilhite was unable to specify any injury he had sustained, instead testifying that the new superintendent’s policies might cause harm in the future. That sort of speculative injury, the court ruled, is not grounds for an injunction. 

The judge also rejected Wilhite’s argument that he had effectively been precluded from addressing the board in opposition to Clayton’s hiring because members of the public must register their intention to speak at a board meeting at least five days in advance, and the agenda indicating the board’s plan to approve a superintendent candidate was posted on Nov. 15, the day of the board meeting. The court ruled that the public has a right to observe board meetings, but no absolute right to speak at them, and that the school board policy permits the public to speak at board meetings without the five-day advance notice if the topic is on the agenda. 

The judge also ruled that lawsuits to invalidate a board action pursuant to the Open Meetings Act must be filed within 21 days of the action being made public, and Wilhite’s lawsuit was filed 23 days after the vote for Clayton was made public. 

At the trial, the judge ordered the parties to file briefs by 5 p.m. Friday addressing any issues raised during testimony. Wilhite’s lawyer, Russell Crumbley of Huntsville, filed his post-trial brief at 5:06 p.m., and in his order Brown noted that it was filed after the deadline. 

Crumbley this morning filed a motion asking Brown to alter his judgment, arguing “that the late filing of his post-trial brief was not due to procrastination, but rather technical difficulties relating to the flooding of his office” and asking Brown “to, at the very least, read the plaintiff’s post-hearing brief.”  

Clayton, 52, previously was principal of James Clemens High School. He was hired to replace Dee Dee Jones, who retired as superintendent in July. Clayton took office as Hartselle superintendent Jan. 4.