GEORGE COUNTY, Miss. (WKRG) — A federal lawsuit filed against the George County School District is moving forward after a motion to dismiss was denied Thursday, Sept. 15.
The lawsuit, filed by Pam Touchard, alleges the district’s board of education discriminated against her by denying her any employment opportunity after her term as superintendent ended.
Touchard was elected superintendent in 2015 and held the position through the end of 2019. She was the county’s last elected superintendent. Originally, voters would select the next superintendent. Now, the decision is made by the school board in all public school districts.
Wade Whitney, then the high school principal, was hired by the board to fill the job beginning in 2020.
The lawsuit alleges Touchard found evidence in May 2019 that high-performing students had been recruited to take state tests for other students that had a higher likelihood of failing.
When she reported the evidence to the state department of education, Touchard claims the school board hired an assistant superintendent to oversee operations at the high school and prevent Touchard from continuing an investigation.
Through alleged threats and reassigning her duties and responsibilities to other staff, Touchard is seeking a judgment that finds the school board violated her First Amendment rights by retaliating against her after she used her freedom of speech to report the alleged cheating to the state.
Touchard further claims she has been repeatedly denied employment to teach in the district as retaliation after her elected term in office finished. Before becoming superintendent, she was a kindergarten teacher for 15 years.
The lawsuit also alleges the superintendent’s pay was decreased by the board between the time of Touchard’s election in Nov. 2015 and when she took office in Jan. 2016, but was raised when Whitney took office. Touchard made $94,101 per year. Whitney’s current salary is $112,000.
The school district’s motion to dismiss the case argued that Touchard had no First Amendment protections while performing her job as a public employee. Judge Taylor McNeel denied the motion in federal court Sept. 15, finding that her speech was protected as an elected official, not an employee at the school board’s hiring discretion.
A separate argument that Touchard was denied her 14th Amendment right by being denied equal protection under the law was dismissed. Her initial complaint requests a jury trial. A date has not been set.
An investigative audit was opened by the Mississippi Department of Education into the school district in July 2019. In Touchard’s amended complaint filed Dec. 2021, she believes the investigation is ongoing.
WKRG has filed a public records request with the state for an update on, and any fact-finding reports from, the audit.