Former Westside principal files seven-count suit
By Cristina Kumka
STAFF WRITER | October 03,2012
WEST RUTLAND — The former principal of West Rutland School alleges she was fired wrongfully, her name and reputation were defamed and the School Board skirted the state’s public meeting law while doing it.
Juanita Burch-Clay filed a lawsuit last week, which includes seven allegations against the Rutland Central Supervisory Union, the board in its entirety and Superintendent Debra Taylor, Board Chairman David O’Rourke and Vice-Chair Mike Moser individually.
She is seeking monetary damages on all charges, including part of her more than $85,000 salary.
And, she wants her job back.
Burch-Clay is suing all parties for breach of contract, wrongful termination, defamation, intentional emotional distress and a violation of the open meeting law, among other counts.
While court documents detail arguments from attorneys representing both the principal and the School Board, they also revealed consequences for kids.
A document from a termination hearing conducted by the School Board alleges Burch-Clay did not do teacher evaluations, inform parents of a new teacher, submit budget reports on time or comply with a federal law that mandates students’ achievements. It said she resisted authority and decided to pursue her own plan for the school.
In Burch-Clay’s defense, a document claims that one board member said other board members never wanted Burch-Clay to succeed.
Board member Lisa Garcia explained why she voted “no” to Burch-Clay’s firing Aug. 12 in a five-page opinion contained in the lawsuit.
Garcia claims there was no “just” cause for the termination but rather an insensitive administrator, malicious School Board members and an outraged public, among other factors, led to the removal of Burch-Clay.
“Mr. O’Rourke and Mr. Moser have approached Burch-Clay with suspicion, lack of cooperation, and on occasion, with outright hostility,” Garcia wrote about the chairman of the board and the vice-chairman, respectively.
“Further, I believe that Mr. O’Rourke and Mr. Moser have made their conclusions as early as fall 2011 that they did not want Burch-Clay as our principal,” Garcia wrote.
In the lawsuit, testimony from a parent revealed O’Rourke said that Burch-Clay would likely be fired for changing things at the school too quickly and she “stepped on people’s toes.”
Burch-Clay, who began her position at the school in July 2011, filed the lawsuit Sept. 25 for in response to a lengthy termination process that spanned six months.
Attorney Pietro Lynn expects to represent all parties being sued, including the superintendent, district and supervisory union in defense of the lawsuit. He said the process that the board followed to fire Burch-Clay “was wholly consistent with what the law requires.”
“We expect that the district and the board and the superintendent will prevail in this matter. We believe the allegations are wholly meritless and the court will ultimately dismiss the case,” Lynn said Monday.
In her lawsuit, Burch-Clay alleges her contract was for two years and the board didn’t have the legal right to end it before June 30, 2013. The board argues that it did have a right not to renew the contract after the end of the first year.
A formal evaluation of Burch-Clay’s performance by superintendent Taylor from February of this year gave Burch-Clay passing marks in four out of six state performance standards.
Burch-Clay needed improvement in two main areas, according to Taylor. She needed to work with Taylor and other members of the central office to develop staff training to improve test scores and communicate with the board better.
Burch-Clay got high marks for an overall positive school climate and reinvigorating parent involvement in the school.
That review, signed by Taylor and Burch-Clay on March 1, also stated that if Burch-Clay didn’t improve to the satisfaction of the superintendent, it might result in non-renewal at the end of the contract year.
Thirteen days later, the School Board did just that, and voted to not renew the contract, with consideration.
Burch-Clay’s suit argues they did that in executive session without properly warning the meeting.
On March 19, five days after the Board’s initial decision to not renew, Burch-Clay responded to the Board in a letter that said she would take immediate actions to address any concerns the board may have.
The board and superintendent gave Burch-Clay until Feb. 1, 2013 to improve in those areas, with the help of an improvement coach.
In May, Burch-Clay again wrote a letter to the board reporting what actions she had taken regarding their concerns — including reporting meeting notes faster, keeping away from teachers who were perceived as getting extra attention and getting more involved with the high school.
O’Rourke, in a June 21 letter contained in the lawsuit, wrote to Burch-Clay confirming that she was fired because, according to him, she didn’t take the board’s request for remediation seriously.
On Aug. 12, the last formal vote was taken and all members, except for Garcia, and O’Rourke — who recused himself from the vote — voted in favor of firing Burch-Clay.
The action incited parents who supported Burch-Clay.
Jennifer Fredreck, the parent who represented nearly 30 parents in a collective civil suit against the board earlier this year, said parents took action and filed suit in June, when it was clear to everyone that the board wasn’t willing to work with the principal they supported.
Fredreck said the town and school are not better off without Burch-Clay.
“Anybody with that amount of responsibility, you find things that weren’t up to par, especially in their first year,” Fredreck said of the alleged inefficiencies of Burch-Clay.
“I don’t think any of that behavior rises to egregiousness or just cause,” she said. “We now have an interim principal there three days a week. In the long term, the school will suffer.”