Imbroglio in Boyd County: Local Hero Struggles To Block Ouster

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CATLETTSBURG, KY.---William R. Scott must rise from the lunch table to tell the story of a long-ago elementary-school field day.

The retired educator recalls Delmis Donta, the principal of the school, intently leading the tug-of-war team. Though within shouting range, Mr. Donta--rapt in concentration--employed a megaphone to ensure the team's full effort.

"He would be standing there next to them hollering, 'Heave! Heave!' "Mr. Scott, then a teacher at the school, remembers, stretching the cadence for as long as his breath will carry it. "It didn't matter if they lost all of the track-and-field events; Delmis Donta claimed that tug-of-war."

These days, Mr. Donta, now the superintendent of the Boyd County system here, is embroiled in a higher-stakes struggle with serious consequences for his career, for the well-being of the 4,100-student district, and for state officials determined to exercise stricter oversight of local school governance.

In the months since a still-pending misdemeanor misconduct charge was filed against him for signing an allegedly false enrollment report, the 64-year-old superintendent has become the focus of a raging controversy in the county. Parents staged a one-day boycott of the schools, and the state school beard is considering whether to dismiss him on its own charges, an action unprecedented in Kentucky.

At the same time, Mr. Donta, a lifelong resident of the county who has been superintendent for five years, is clearly seen as a hero by many in this rural area perched on the edge of Ohio and West Virginia.

If the stakes are high for Mr. Donta, they are perhaps no less so for the state. Although Mr. Donta's fate ultimately rests with the state board of education, Commissioner Thomas C. Boysen has presented the case as a test of the state's intention to root out corruption among local school officials under its landmark reform law.

For Boyd County residents, the saga has lasted for more than a year, involving parents and educators in a drama that many say has been protracted by Mr. Donta's own actions.

Residents who have endured the twists and turns of the superintendent's brush with the justice system, those who have complained to state officials, and parents who took part in the school boycott argue that education has suffered and that the county's reputation has been scarred.

For many of those who remember Mx. Donta's 45-year tenure as an active teacher and administrator, however, the turmoil has seemed a cruel spectacle of character assassination.

And to Mr. Donta, who has offered medical excuses on each of the three dates that his misdemeanor trial was scheduled to begin, the situation is a travesty in which the local "power structure" and vindictive educators and parents have plotted his demise.

A Hero to Some

The heart of Catlettsburg, the county seat, lies on a narrow stretch of land pinched between busy railroad tracks and flood walls built to hold back the Ohio River. Surrounded by arteries that continue to ferry the coal that lies beneath the region's bluffs and hills, Catlettsburg is home to many people with deep roots here. To many of them, the present controversy seems far removed from longheld images of Mr. Donta.

"He is a good school man, and no matter what he does, he is motivated by goodness," said Minnie Gee, a 30-year teacher in Boyd County. "He was a leader in everything they needed to get started here."

Not only was Mr. Donta a supportive principal and good teacher, he worked long hours on a variety of community projects, she added.

"Absolutely by his own power, he got water for Cannonsburg," Ms. Gee said.

Mr. Scott, who recently retired as an elementary-school principal, said Mr. Donta has endured as a role model for him.

"Here came this one-armed man across a field on a tractor, cutting all the weeds. He put boards into the ground and made walls for a baseball field, he put timber in the ground and made basketball backboards," Mr. Scott said. "He did this all over the county; he cut all the fields and made all the ballfields, and we played all summer."

More recently, Mr. Donta, who was born without a left arm, has led campaigns against annexation of county land by the city of Ashland, and has worked against efforts to merge the county and city governments. At every turn, supporters say, Mr. Donta has been an advocate for the children and residents of Boyd County.

"He has absolutely saved little children from terrible fates," Mr. Scott said. "He does not deserve what he's getting."

The Troubles Begin

When Mr. Donta tumbled down an embankment across the river in Ohio late this summer, observers here said his troubles had hit rock bottom. His collapse at a gas station forced the postponement of his thai date for the third time, and moved parents and state education officials into action.

"That was the straw that broke the camel's back," said Clinton L. Allie, a construction worker and the spokesman for the parents behind the boycott. "The man may truly be sick, but one thing led to another and something had to be done."

About 20 percent of the county's more than 4,100 students observed the boycott. Mr. Allie said that as Mr. Donta's case has been dragged out, the schools have lacked leadership and been faced with many parents considering sending their children to another district. He said he would like to see the entire school beard replaced in the next election and a new superintendent appointed with no ties to the district.

Mr. Donta's troubles began on Sept. 15, 1989, the day he signed a report to state officials certifying that classrooms in the district were within mandated capacity levels.

Several months later, state officials began receiving letters complaining that classrooms in the county were overcrowded, with student-to-teacher ratios surpassing 30 to 1 in some, according to court documents. After a visit by state officials, the state received more letters complaining that the district had reassigned teacher aides and shuffled students solely for the investigators' visit.

In May 1990, two days after the state board of education reprimanded Mr. Donta over the class-size issue and called for a criminal investigation, the superintendent met with Boyd County Attorney Jerry Vincent, according to court documents. At the meeting, which Mr. Vincent audiotaped, Mr. Donta said that he had become the target of state officials and offered to make the prosecutor a partner on a subdivision-development plan. According to a transcript, Mr. Donta offered Mr. Vincent half of the venture's profits.

Last fall, a grand jury charged Mr. Donta with second-degree official misconduct stemming from the class-size report, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and a $250 fine.

Observers say that while the charge raised concerns about Mr. Donta's management of the district, the delays that followed raised alarm about Mr. Donta himself.

Most residents expected that the superintendent would argue in court that a subordinate had prepared the class-size report. Mr. Donta's defense also has asked whether he could be charged or tried under a statute that expired when the state supreme court found all the state's school laws unconstitutional.

But rather than going to trial in April, the case was delayed after Mr. Donta underwent emergency hernia surgery after helping a stranded motorist push her car off a road.

Reset for May, the trial was again postponed after a doctor testified that the superintendent needed more time to recuperate from the surgery.

In the days preceding Mr. Donta's August trial date, he began to seek another continuance. On Aug. 2, he said that his blood pressure had risen to dangerous levels. The next week, he mailed letters to President' Bush and other federal and state officials asking them to intervene.

On Aug. 11, just before the trial was to begin, Mr. Donta was dinking a cherry slush at a Gallipolis, Ohio, gas station when he collapsed and fell down an embankment. He was hospitalized for six days and his trial was once again postponed.

Political Motives Seen

In an interview late last month, Mr. Donta appeared neither frail nor battered. He quickly disputed critics' arguments that the schools are suffering, that he has avoided the legal charges, and, above all, that he is guilty of wrongdoing.

"I know that I have not done anything deliberately wrong," Mr. Donta said. "If you ask the solid citizens, the Christians, and the educators, they will tell you that this has been 100 percent political, and that they don't want the lower echelon of society controlling their schools."

Mr. Donta said his problems have snowballed in part because the news media have magnified the story, and because he has gained too much political power during his career.

"Political clout is the name of the game ," he said. "That's why they are after me."

"They," to Mr. Donta, are some local politicians, educators, and parents who would welcome his dismissal.

Mr. Donta said his departure would be hailed by officials in Ashland and Catlettsburg who are preparing a new campaign to merge the city and county governments. Others who stand to gain, he said, include several Boyd County educators who have felt snubbed by his administration. Finally, he contended, his ouster would be a victory for Ashland Oil, a major employer that is headquartered in Boyd County and has its largest refinery here.

After Mr. Donta recommended a new utility tax to help funds schools last year, Ashland Oil revised a grant program that had benefitted the schools. The district needed to raise taxes to qualify for new matching funds provided under Kentucky's 1990 education reform act. The utility tax cost Ashland about $600,000 annually, according to estimates.

Ashland officials acknowledged that the increased taxes triggered their decision to scale back the grant program, but added that they have played no role in the present controversy surrounding Mr. Donta.

"We're their largest taxpayer, so we're interested, but we stay out of the local politics of education," said Roger Schrum, an Ashland spokesman. "We're more interested in what's going on in the classroom."

Test for Reform Law

In recent weeks, the issue has heated up for state officials, who are actively pushing for Mr. Donta's ouster. Commissioner Boysen said the controversy is an important precedent for the state's school-reform law.

When the reform law was passed, one of the assumptions was that governance would be cleaned up," Mr. Boysen said.

About a dozen state investigators visited Boyd County recently and compiled a list of five charges ranging from Mr. Donta's recent time out of the office to charges that he obstructed the state's school reforms.

Mr. Donta was scheduled to face the state's charges this week and appear at a heating to rule on the ouster within three to four weeks. Last week, sources said, he was suggesting a deal with state school officials under which he would resign as superintendent but remain as a consultant to the district through the school year.

His misdemeanor trial is now set for Oct. 21.

Last week, the Boyd school beard appointed an interim superintendent at Mr. Donta's request as he remains on sick leave.

Mr. Donta said in the interview that he was sure pressure had built to oust him. No matter what happens, he said, the ill-will the controversy is sure to leave is not what he had imagined as the close of his career.

"I expected it would end with me having accomplished completion of all the buildings and facilities needed to make a Class-A system," he said. "I did not expect the political activity. There are just too many people jockeying for position here."

Disenchantment with the dispute's political overtones has also weighed on Jay Young Jr., the school-beard chairman. Mr. Young recently voted to fire Mr. Donta after the state asked that he be removed. However, the school beard could not muster the four votes needed to fire Mr. Donta.

Mr. Young praised Mr. Donta's attention to facilities problems at the county high school and his efforts to lift the district's $16-million budget out of a deficit he inherited.

"Without the political pressures, I think it would have turned out differently, but it has snowballed and it is almost unreal now," Mr. Young said.

Carla N. Large, the mother of two Boyd County students, voiced the sentiment of many residents.

"If a $250 fine is all it was, he's cost each and every student $250. Two and three states away, we're in the news," she said. "To lynch someone just because you are fed up is not right, but this needs to be settled in the courts and let the schools go on educating the children."

'Vindication' Expected

Larry P. Midkiff, principal of Cannonsburg Elementary School, said many educators have found the controversy troubling.

"I cannot imagine anything like this happening to an individual who for 45 years dedicated his life to this," he said. "He's here in his last years to do what has not been done in this system. He's trying to make up for all these years of neglect."

While his supporters ponder his fate, Mr. Donta displays confidence.

"I am 100 percent sure that I will be vindicated and exonerated," said Mr. Donta, whose greatest previous defeat came on a long-ago field day.

"I think I lost to Ironville one time," he said, recalling his 20-year record at tug-of-war, "but my strongest man did not show up for the event."

Vol. 11, Issue 05, Pages 1, 22

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