Friday, July 19, 2013

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part CXVII): Dismissed principal wins lawsuit

The July 17, 2013 issue of the Newton County Times reports on several significant bits of school news.  First, the former Oark High School principal, Anita Cooper, has won the first round of her lawsuit against the Jasper Board of Education, which dismissed her in the fall of 2011.  At the time, she was under a one-year contract with the school board for the 2011-2012 school year, at a salary of $74,000.  She filed a grievance in late August of that year saying she had been denied the right to create the master schedule for the Oark campus and was "written up" by then assistant superintendent Wanda Mann.  A few weeks later, Superintendent Kerry Saylors removed Cooper from her duties as principal and assigned her to another campus, Kingston, to be principal of "in school suspension."  At that time, Cooper was notified that she was being suspended with pay and that she was being recommended for termination of her contract.  

At that point, the news story goes into Superintendent Saylors report to the board about the litigation.
Sometimes school boards and superintendents are placed in situations where they must make difficult elisions.  It's even more unfortunate when these incidents continue to drag on.  The case filed by Ms. Cooper against the district, myself, and Ms. Mann was heard in Johnson County Circuit Court last spring.  It idd not go very well from the start.   
Sanctions were filed by the judge against our attorney and the evidence that was attained from the (Arkansas Board of Education) ethics case against Ms. Cooper was ruled non-admissible.  The judge issued his ruling about a month after the case was heard, and he found in favor of Ms. Cooper and awarded Ms. Cooper around $43,000 plus her lawyer fees of around $32,000. 
Ms. Cooper's attorney then filed a request to the judge for those amounts to be increased, Saylors said, and the judge came back and awarded Ms. Cooper an additional $21,000 which brought the amount she would receive to about $64,000.
Our district does have insurance that covers this claim. It also covers our legal defense.
I visited with board members last month and recommended to them we not appeal the judge's ruling and request the insurance company to settle this matter so it would not distract from what our true goal is--to educate children.  
The story goes on to report that Saylors passed that recommendation on to the insurance company, ACE, "based in Chicago, Illinois."  Saylor continues:
ACE recently replied to me that our request has been denied and they have directed our attorney to appeal the judge's ruling to the sate Supreme Court.  I then contacted different individuals at ACE to voice my displeasure with this decision. 
I looked into the matter some more and and found that we do not have a say in this decision.  Our legal counsel has informed me that in his opinion we will be lucky if this is resolved within one year.  The insurance company has informed that their policy does cover the judge's previous ruling and it will cover any additional expenses that may come up.  
Saylor also informed the school board that if the case is appealed, "no school district employee should be called to testify.  The trial would be based on records from the previous trial."

The trial court's ruling also reinstated Ms. Cooper to her position at Principal of Oark Schools through June 30, 2012, for purposes of her retirement benefits.

Related to the matter, apparently, are "Board of Education's Filings" which are also reported in this news story.  It shows that on July 8, 2013, the Arkansas State Board of Education accepted the recommendation of the Professional Licensure Standards Board Ethics Subcommittee for disciplinary action against the teaching license of Ms. Anita Cooper.  The findings included
that Cooper was issued a standard-five teaching license on Jan. 1, 2012 valid until Dec. 31, 2016; the  ethics subcommittee received an allegation  that Cooper violated three standards: 
  • Maintains a professional relationship with each student, both in and outside the classroom; 
  • Maintains competence regarding skills, knowledge and dispositions relating to his/her organizational position, subject matter and/or pedagogical practice and  
  • Honestly fulfills reporting obligations associated with professional practices.  
After considering the investigator's report and evidence on May 10, 2013, the subcommittee unanimously found that reasonable belief existed to substantiate the violations and recommended that the state board place Cooper's license on suspension for a year and assess a fine of $100.  
Gee, I wish the reporter on this story had done a bit more to stitch the different bits together.   It seems to be suggesting, based on the "Board of Education's Filings," that Ms. Cooper has done something untoward.  But did she do this during the time relevant to her dismissal by the Jasper School District?  Are these "filings" the reason that the insurance company is so confident in its appeal?  And if so, why is the superintendent so keen to stop the appeal and have the lawsuit go away?  

In other rural school news, the Jasper district is fighting--with the assistance of some state legislators and Arkansas Department of Education officials--the impending end of isolated school funding.  (Read more about that funding here and here).  With campuses at both Oark and Kingston, the Jasper district is the most far-flung in the state, spread over parts of three counties.  Indeed, a headline in the paper calls it "isolated schools 'poster child.'" Currently, the school receives $665,000 a year in isolated school funding.  Between now and 2025, when isolated funding is set to be phased out entirely in Arkansas, the district will receive a total of nearly $5 million in isolated funding.  That is less than it would have received had the formula for calculating the aid not been changed by a new law passed this spring.  However, the original version of that law would have eliminated all isolated school funding in just two years, so the slower reduction over a decade is certainly more palatable to rural schools than that.  The story explains that a state representative for the district that includes the Oark school, Betty Overbey, and Tony Wood, a Deputy Commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Education, "were instrumental" in getting amended that proposed law to entirely eliminate state funding.  The story reports that the Jasper Board of Education continues "to build a coalition of legislative and state education leaders supporting the retention of isolated school funding for Jasper and other districts."  

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