LONGVIEW, Texas – Randall Coggin had worked for the Longview Independent School District for more than 30 years when he had a confrontation with a new superintendent.
Early in March 1999 Arthur Culver took charge of the east Texas district where Coggin was supervisor of the district's career and technology education department.
Since he joined the Champaign district in 2002, Culver's hiring – and firing – policies have been questioned, and Coggin's story shows there was some precedent in Texas.
A popular basketball coach in Champaign was reinstated this month after the teachers' union raised due-process concerns over his firing, following an incident between the coach and Culver's son. And Culver has brought several administrators with him from Texas to the Champaign district, prompting some criticism early in his tenure.
"I was one of the highest paid administrators in the district and had been absent three days in 30 years," Coggin said in a telephone interview. "He'd been here three weeks and he pounced on me. He accused me of a bunch of stuff and said I should resign or retire or it's going to get ugly."
"I said, 'Get your ugly out and come on.'"
The dispute that followed ended up in court later that year, and the court ruling last year cost the Longview district and its insurers more than $350,000, including a check for $270,000 just paid to Coggin and more than $100,000 in lawyers' fees, a figure that's still not final.
"It was very unfortunate," Culver said today. "There was no vendetta. Some things were brought to my attention about Coggin and his employment that had to be dealt with early. I have nothing against Mr. Coggin personally. But as a superintendent, you're forced sometimes to deal with things you don't want to deal with, but because of your responsibility, you have to anyway. You have to be fair and consistent with everyone.
"I really hated it, but the things brought to my attention were of such a serious nature, had I not dealt with them, I would have not acted as a responsible superintendent."
Initially, Coggin said, the district charged him with misappropriating cars.
"I ran the best department in Texas and my kids had new cars to work on," Coggin said. "He (Culver) said the district didn't know about those cars. All I had to do was to find travel reports signed by previous superintendents from when I went to Shreveport to pick them up, and that fell apart.
"When I didn't just fall over, they came up with sexual harassment charges," he said. "I thought, where did they get that?"
Coggin was suspended from late March through August while the district conducted an investigation.
"I found out they grilled every female employee I ever had," he said. "In court, the judge asked one employee, 'What kind of a hug was that? A church-house hug? A peck on the cheek?'"
Official charges against Coggin, which were all rejected by the courts, included sexually harassing female subordinates; using school resources for personal benefit; impeding the investigation of his behavior; and falsifying asbestos records.
"The charges turned out to be rather silly – he went to a lady, congratulated her for doing a great job, hugged her, things like that," said Coggin's attorney, Charles Clark of Tyler, Texas, who also described the auditing charges and others like asbestos infractions as "nitpicking stuff."
Things came to a head at the end of that summer. Culver sent Coggin a letter on Aug. 12, 1999, outlining the charges against him. On Aug. 24, Coggin filed required documents asking for a hearing by a state officer, and he also sent notice to the district.
The state commissioner denied the hearing because he thought the request hadn't been filed by the deadline. Coggin's attorneys contended that the postmark, not the date received, determined the deadline, and they also contended school board members knew the deadline had been met, a key point in the lawsuit.
Meanwhile, Coggin, who had just learned he had cancer, sent Culver a letter saying he needed to take the sick leave he'd accumulated, a year of it, and he said that depending on the outcome of his treatment, he might resign or retire at the end of it.
But while Coggin was in the hospital for treatment, the board convened Sept. 13 and fired him, an action that led to the lawsuit filed Nov. 13, 1999.
"Coggin attempted to notify the state that he intended to appeal the proposal to fire, and he filed the appeal," Clark said. "The state said it was filed late. That was absolutely wrong, the school district knew it was wrong, but two weeks later, there was a board meeting, he wasn't notified, and they fired him."
Culver said board attorneys advised Longview trustees to deny Coggin's request for a hearing because it violated state law.
"The board considered it and I was in favor of (granting the hearing), but attorneys said the board had no authority to do that and it was either back to work or termination," Culver said. "We decided based on the charges, it wasn't right to bring him back to work because we wouldn't do that for another employee because we considered the behavior to be not remediable."
He still believes attorneys' advice was correct and he said the Texas Education Agency ended up changing its procedures because of the case.
"We came to court, the court tried the case and found none of the allegations had any basis in evidence," Clark said. "It found Coggin's due process was violated, and it awarded him back pay, future earnings, mental anguish and attorney's fees."
The school district took the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans, then to a 15-judge panel at the New Orleans court, which concluded that the district had fired Coggin too quickly, and finally all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"The Supreme Court made the fastest turnaround I've ever seen on a case," Clark said. "It was filed on Friday and rejected on Monday."
The decision was announced in November 2003, ending a three-year standoff.
"There were unique politics at work that had a profound impact on what happened in federal court," Culver said. "I believe that significantly impacted the outcome. No one could believe that ruling."
"We just got paid a month ago, and I'm filing a motion for additional attorneys' fees," Clark said.
Coggin said he's healthy again and busier than ever working in construction, building biplanes and working on other projects.
He said Longview residents reacted negatively to the district's action and voted the two school board members who backed Culver in the dispute and in other matters off the board in the next election.
"I've never understood what happened," Clark said. "In my opinion, it was like he came into the district and was given a hit list – get rid of these people. And he did."