Charlie Mott was tired of waiting. First of all, he didn't see why all the families at the Future Farmers of America facility in the Alief Independent School District had to be locked out of the barn over Christmas break just because some people weren't taking care of business by leaving gates hanging open.
He spent the weekend hauling his daughter and her heifers to two different shows, and they'd done fairly well. She was even reserve breed champion in one ring. He was ready to unload and be done with it on that Sunday night of January 4.
But the gates were locked and they weren't able to raise agriculture adviser Mark Peak on his pager or cell phone to come unlock them. Following printed district policy, they called the Alief ISD police department, but a person there said they weren't unlocking those gates anymore. Finally, they reached Harvey Willis, another ag instructor, who came out to open up.
There was still one more hurdle. Ron Kelly, another parent, had his little red Dodge Dakota truck parked right in front of the barn, while he was inside with his stepdaughter. Willis went to ask Kelly to move the truck, but nothing happened.
Mott and Kelly weren't best pals, having had at least a couple of earlier exchanges. Mott's daughter Michelle chalks it up to a basic personality conflict; the two men just seemed to grate on each other. Mott stayed outside the gate with his truck while his wife, Debbie, and Michelle went inside.
"Mr. Kelly was being rude and uncooperative" to Willis, Mott says. After 20 more minutes, Willis left and Mott was still sitting outside on the road. Finally Kelly got in his truck, put it in reverse and waited for Mott to move. Mott got madder; he says he tends to be "a little hot-headed" and Kelly was "pushing my buttons."
Mott whipped his truck and trailer around Kelly's Dakota. As he pulled forward, Kelly pulled forward. There was some shouting back and forth. "My vocabulary had not been the politest," Mott says. Mott blocked Kelly from the road and Kelly raced around him through the mud on his way to exiting the facility.
But not for long. Another student, upset and frightened by the shenanigans of the two grown men, had called the school district cops.
On Monday of that week, both men were called to the principal's office and told by Taylor High School Principal Manette Schaller that they were banned from the FFA barn.
This was devastating news for Charlie Mott. He loved working with his daughter, passing on his knowledge from growing up around ranches in Oklahoma. He and his wife began a series of appeals to the district. When Michelle's breeder cow, Alice, became sick with milk fever days after giving birth to twins later that month, district officials gave Charlie an exemption so he could administer Alice some of her injections. He was allowed to stay on the premises only long enough to deliver the shots at a prearranged time. She pulled through.
But when Alice got milk fever again in early April, Charlie didn't get back in, leaving it to his wife and daughter to nurse her back to health. After four excruciating days, the cow died on April 7.
Right now there are three main things sticking in Charlie Mott's craw.
One is a dead cow, a cow he figures wouldn't have died if he'd been by its side.
Another is Ron Kelly, who Mott says has been back on the FFA property, while Mott remains barred, and who even got to chair a fund-raising event for the FFA in May.
The third is, of course, a district that won't let him appeal his punishment and, according to his reading of its rules and regulations, isn't following its own written procedures.
Charlie Mott may not be the most easygoing fellow in the world. But that doesn't mean he isn't right.
Even before Charlie Mott and Ron Kelly decided to redefine the FFA as the Fighting Fathers of Alief, Mott had not done much to endear himself to district administrators. As soon as daughter Michelle joined the program as a freshman in fall 2002, Mott began noting safety and equipment concerns.
And while all school districts trumpet the need for parental involvement, the reality is that few educators or administrators want their shortcomings pointed out to them, their decisions questioned.
And by golly, Charlie Mott was a questioner.
First of all, he said he was afraid that Alief had stolen property from another district, wanting to know what a trimming chute he'd given to Mayde Creek in the Katy ISD was doing over at the Alief barn. That sparked a series of e-mails culminating with Thomas Brawley, Alief's coordinator for Career and Technology Education, telling Mark Peak to get the chute back to Katy. Peak had been an ag instructor with Katy ISD before coming to Alief.
Mott questioned Peak's job performance, complaining that he was spending a lot more time with other students than with Michelle. Peak and other ag advisers receive an extra $4,000 a year to help students with their FFA projects. Mott says that Peak denied any favoritism.
In his daughter's freshman year, when Michelle was showing pigs, Mott got permission to borrow the district trailer so he could haul pigs to a show while the ag advisers were away at a cow show. According to Mott, Peak didn't like this. Mott went over Peak's head later to borrow the trailer to pick up two cows he'd purchased for his daughter's FFA work. Peak did not return phone calls from the Houston Press.
Mott also raised safety concerns about the lack of a working phone or port-a-potty at the barn. He and his wife, who has been a kindergarten teacher in AISD for more than 20 years, questioned the actions of ag advisers on a Fort Worth field trip when Michelle and three other girls believed they'd been left behind at a motel and locked out of their rooms. The teachers later explained they had just driven around the block to drop keys off at the office and hadn't meant to let the girls think they'd left without them, Mott says.
In December Mott had a face-to-face with Superintendent Louis Stoerner to discuss the safety issues and Peak. "I told him some of the decisions made by his administration in backing teachers were a farce. That these were very poor decisions. And he did not want to hear that at all."
So it is not altogether difficult to understand that educators and administrators might not be lining up to help Charlie Mott. In fact, it is a testament to a certain amount of naïveté on his part to expect that they would.
Nevertheless, according to district policy, if someone disagrees with a principal's decision, he has the right to appeal to the superintendent, then to the school board, then to the Texas Education Agency. But Mott and his attorney, Elaine Roberts, say they have been stymied by Stoerner's refusal to meet with Mott. Without a meeting with Stoerner, Roberts says, they've been told they cannot appear before the school board.
AISD spokeswoman Cathy Giardina says that's not true, that anyone can appeal to the school board at any time and that if the trustees think it is warranted, they can order an investigation. But Roberts insists she's been told that without a prior meeting with Stoerner, nothing Charlie Mott has to say to the board could be considered part of its official duties and they would just be wasting their time.
The barn out on Schiller Road off Highway 6 in northwest Houston is, as school district cow barns go, an adequate facility. The cows seem well fed and happy in a cowlike way. Students are responsible for coming out to grain, hay and water them twice a day.
In Michelle's case it's a little more involved than that, being that her twin calves are orphans. She bottle-feeds them, with each one getting three half-gallon bottles at a sitting; the male is already at 500 pounds. She also has two show heifers, Zoey and Star, which she calls in from the pasture for feeding.
In February, right before a big turnout of officials at the barn, the port-a-potty was cleaned up, her father says. Shortly thereafter it disappeared; the explanation was that they were negotiating a new contract. Asked last week why there's never been a replacement, Brawley said he would check on that.
The phone has been out since January. Service was restored two weeks ago, then its wires got cut again. Without a cell phone in hand, there's no way to reach someone in an emergency from there. Asked about the phone by the Press, Brawley said he would look into it.
Michelle hopes to go to Texas A&M to become a large-animal vet and thinks her FFA record will be important, but she's not sure she wants to stay with it because of her dad.
Which would be a shame, because Michelle does very well showing her cows. She has received several ribbons including first in class, reserve champion in breed and grand champion. She placed third at one of the big shows -- San Antonio -- the highest finish of anyone from Alief, she says. Despite all this, she says, she received no recognition at this year's FFA awards ceremony.
As for the death of her cow Alice, Mott says a cow doesn't actually die from milk fever (due to being called upon to produce more calcium than it can readily provide). A cow dies because it becomes weak, and if it lies down long enough it can choke to death. Mott says his wife and daughter were unable to get the 1,200-pound Alice to sit up. He insists that's what caused her death. When asked why the ag advisers weren't as concerned about Alice sitting up and that perhaps there's a difference of opinion here, he says only that his opinion is validated by Alice's death.
In an April 28 e-mail, Deborah Cupples, head of the FFA booster club and wife of the Alief school board president, announced that Ron Kelly would be organizing the workers for the club's next fund-raising efforts at Minute Maid Park on May 1 and 2.
Cupples said she checked with Tom Brawley or David Newman, assistant principal of Elsik South High School, before enlisting Kelly. She said she was assured that since the fund-raising effort did not involve children and it was not on school property that it was all right to include Kelly. Kelly had given generously of his time before, and they needed him, she said.
Asked about this, Brawley repeatedly said he was unaware that Kelly had worked on an FFA fund-raiser and didn't remember getting Cupples's e-mail, even though his name appears as one of its recipients. On April 30, attorney Roberts sent a copy of the Cupples e-mail to school district attorney Eric Nichols and asked why Kelly was being allowed to do this. Nichols replied in an e-mail that "the district is not aware of this involvement. I am certain they will look into it, but your message was the first knowledge we had of the alleged violation of his suspension."
If there was any such investigation, Brawley knew nothing of it, saying the Press questions last week were the first time he'd heard of any of this.
He also said he knew nothing about the latest bit of high drama, that being the reappearance of the little red Dodge truck parked at the FFA barn on the June 12-13 weekend. A check of license records showed it registered to Ron Kelly, who is still banned from the facility. Brawley said he doesn't go out there daily, that being the responsibility of the ag instructors, and he would look into it.
The Press told Deputy Superintendent Paula Conley that it had photographic evidence that Kelly's truck had been at the barn. At first Conley questioned how anyone would know when a picture of the vehicle sitting out in front of the barn had been taken. When the Press informed her this was firsthand information, she said it would have to be checked out.
Other people have said that Kelly was back on the property in recent weeks, helping build pig pens and picking his stepdaughter up from the barn. Asked about that, Conley showed that she either watches too much Court TV or has been deposed a few times too many, saying:
"To anyone's knowledge that works for our district at this point in time, we have no knowledge that he has been on the property."
She also denied "any knowledge" of Kelly being in charge of a fund-raiser.
Contacted at his home, Kelly denied ever being "allowed back on the property" since the ban; his only other comment was "If I were you, I would not believe everything that Charlie Mott tells you."
As for what Superintendent Stoerner is willing to say he knows or doesn't know, that's unclear as well. He did not return repeated calls from the Press.
Brawley did check into the reported truck sighting following the Press call, and the next day the district confirmed that yes, the truck was out there. Still to be determined was whether this was a violation of written policy (no private vehicles may be stashed at the barn unless it's while someone is at a show). But by the day after that, all discussion of a possible show was dropped and spokeswoman Giardina said the truck had been removed.
According to Debbie Mott, the Kellys had placed their truck out there after a teenager had gone through their apartment complex and shot out the windows of several vehicles, including theirs. How did she know this? Debbie Kelly had told her -- the two women have somehow remained on cordial terms through all this.
One other item of interest: Mark Peak was out at the facility that Saturday morning taking some cows to have their hooves trimmed, Debbie Mott says. She doesn't see how he could have missed seeing the truck. Giardina was checking last week to see if Peak gave permission for the Kellys to park their truck there, but she emphasized that the district administration itself "had no knowledge" of it being there.
No flies on them.
In her initial suspension letter, Principal Schaller told the two men that their status would be reviewed at the beginning of the 2004-2005 school year.
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To Thomas Brawley that settled it. To Mott, nothing is settled. Most recently, attorney Roberts pointed out in a May 24 letter that the school year is over and that Michelle needs help with the two orphaned calves.
Counting up the costs of the animals, feed, vet bills and the trailer he bought, Mott figures he's spent more than $10,000 supporting his daughter's FFA venture. And now he can't be a part of it.
Roberts says that ag instructor Harvey Willis has been assigned to oversee Michelle's projects, and Charlie Mott and Willis get along. The attorney has offered the district a deal: If Mott is allowed back on the property, he will go about his business, keeping his opinions to himself and his mouth shut. Whether Mott has the capacity to do so is, of course, another question.
Alief has set up an appeals policy that it isn't following, guaranteeing a meeting with the superintendent that Charlie Mott isn't getting. It doesn't matter that Superintendent Stoerner might rather stand barefoot on a bed of hot coals. It's suck-it-up time, Louis.