Hester v. Lowndes County School District – This opinion linked to is the Court of Appeals opinion. The Miss. S. Ct. granted cert. It involves the firing of the principal and a coach at New Hope High School in Lowndes County after the coach (Hester) financed a $15,000 fairway mower in the school’s name with the written approval of the principal (Wright). The chancellor affirmed the firing of Hester but reinstated Wright. The Court of Appeals found that both should have remained fired.
These are the facts as reported by the Court of Appeals:
In 2007, Wright became the principal of New Hope High School. According to him, Hester, who had been the baseball coach for many years, proposed acquiring a used John Deere fairway mower for $15,000. The price was said to be excellent. Wright admitted he and Hester both knew the school could not purchase the mower for a number of reasons, and Hester’s proposal for the school to buy it had already been abandoned. Hester instead would acquire it through the baseball booster club, which was a private organization. The booster club had made numerous purchases in the past for the use of the baseball program.
“Hester acquired the mower through a lease/purchase agreement financed by Wells Fargo. He executed the agreement on behalf of “New Hope High School” by “Stacy Hester, Baseball Coach.” In other places the agreement identifies the lessee as “New Hope Baseball” or “New Hope High School dba New Hope Baseball.” The form gives the lessee’s address as that of the high school and includes the school district’s federal tax identification number. A few days after the lease/purchase agreement was signed by Hester, he and Wright executed an “incumbency certificate” that stated Hester had authority to enter into leases on behalf of the school.
The lease agreement provided for annual payments of about $3,700. At first, the payments were apparently made by Hester or the booster club. Hester was later removed from his position as baseball coach and reassigned within the school district to teach gym at an elementary school. Around this time the booster club was “reorganized.” Hester took the mower with him when he left, and he apparently claimed it as his property. The record contains an email from the treasurer of the old booster club stating that the mower was personally owned by Hester and that the booster club had leased the mower from him or reimbursed him for some of the payments. The email stated that Hester would “continue to make the lease payments on his own.” Hester failed to make the 2010 payment which came due on March 15, however, and the lender sought payment from the new booster club and the high school. Ultimately the new booster club took possession of the mower and assumed responsibility for the payments.
After the tractor purchase was discovered, Hester and Wright were terminated from their employment by the superintendent. Each requested and received a hearing, pursuant to Mississippi Code Annotated section 37-9-111 (Supp. 2012), though neither testified. The school board in each case voted to uphold termination. The chancellor affirmed Hester’s firing and reversed Wright’s. Wright was awarded approximately $175,000 in damages for back pay.”
Hester argued that the school had no authority to punish him for making a purchase through the booster club, since the school benefitted from the mower while never having to pay anything for it. He also argued that there was no evidence the school’s tax ID number was acquired fraudulently or that its use provided him with any benefit The Court of Appeals found that there was good cause to support the termination of both Hester and Wright.
On February 20, 2014, the Miss.S.Ct. granted certiorari with the vote as follows: To grant: Waller, C.J.,Dickenson, P.J., Pierce and King. To deny: Randolph, P.J., Lamar, Kitchens, and Coleman. Chandler did not participate.
The cases are set for oral argument on Monday April 14, 2014, at 1:30 p.m. At that time they can be viewed at this link. Jim Waide is representing Hester and Wright. State legislator Jeff Smith is representing the school district.