State agency rules Ki-Be teacher faced discrimination

By Jacques Von Lunen, Herald staff writer April 19, 2011 

BENTON CITY -- The Kiona-Benton City School District discriminated against one teacher and interfered with the rights of eight others during a tumultuous period at Ki-Be Elementary last year, a state agency has ruled.

The Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) ended a lengthy investigation by concluding the district transferred Connie Meredith, a teacher and president of the Ki-Be teachers union, from the elementary school to the middle school because of her union activities.

The commission also said the district unfairly targeted nine teachers, including Meredith, in an investigation by the district's insurance carrier, interfering with their rights as employees.

The commission did not agree with two other complaints on behalf of individual teachers, who alleged the district violated their rights.

The district was ordered to offer Meredith her old job back, to publicize the commission's decision and to notify the agency how it will prevent further interference with employee rights.

The trouble started at the elementary school two years ago, according to a PERC report based on more than 1,500 pages of testimony from teachers and district officials.

Newly hired Principal Heather Franklin called meetings with teachers in the summer of 2009, before the start of the school year.

Meredith, then the union treasurer, told Franklin that teachers ought to get paid extra for the meetings. Franklin told her there was no money for that, according to the agency report.

Things got worse from there.

Teachers later told the PERC examiner that by the spring of 2010, the atmosphere in the school was "tense" and the relationship between the new principal and teachers "strained."

Teachers avoided going to the staff lounge and felt Franklin had favorites, they said.

In May 2010, Superintendent Rom Castilleja and then-Director of Teaching Kevin Pearl met with teachers to try to improve the working climate at the school. The group of teachers told the officials they felt bullied at school, specifically in their interactions with Franklin. One teacher, however, said she felt bullied by Meredith.

Later that month, the situation deteriorated.

The district posted an opening for a fourth-grade teaching position May 11. Within a few days, altered copies of the job posting circulated around the school.

Someone had added words to the ad, implying that young teachers were more likely to be hired. One criticism leveled at the new principal had been that she disliked veteran teachers -- who would be more likely to stand up to her.

Castilleja called an emergency meeting with teachers and told them he would call for an investigation and disciplinary actions, possibly including a lawsuit, against the perpetrator. He then contacted the district's insurance carrier, which sent an investigator.

During a June 2 meeting, union officials tried to give Castilleja an anonymous letter from a teacher who had worked under Franklin when she was a principal in Othello, where teachers allegedly didn't agree with her tactics.

The superintendent refused to take the letter. But two days later, copies of the letter showed up at the elementary school.

The district searched its computer servers to find out who had downloaded copies of the job announcement and who received email copies of the Othello letter.

Aside from the district's personnel director, only Meredith had downloaded the job announcement. And only five teachers, including Meredith, had received the letter on their school computers. This information was not made public until the PERC report came out last week.

On June 10, the Ki-Be teachers' union elected Meredith to be its president.

The next day, Castilleja told Meredith she would be moved from the elementary school to the middle school.

The superintendent told the examiner that he made that decision based on statements from Franklin and former principals, who said Meredith challenged their authority and stood in the way of new programs or ideas that principals tried to establish.

But Castilleja was unable to provide the PERC examiner with any specific examples of the allegation.

And he told the insurance investigator that Meredith was a "control freak," she "liked to be in charge" and was a "union person," according to the PERC report. Franklin told the investigator Meredith was "a pain in the ass."

Meredith has taught for 19 years, 18 of them in first grade. The transfer to eighth grade meant she had to teach subjects she never had taught before, work with students much older than those she had experience with and get used to a new curriculum.

The examiner found the transfer was based on hostility toward the union. "Officials co-mingled Meredith's union activities with her teaching and they were unable to separate the two," the report said.

The investigation into the disruptive materials circulated at the elementary school focused on nine teachers, two of whom didn't even work there. All nine were either union officials, had supported teachers active in the union or had filed grievances with the district.

The examiner found "a typical employee could reasonably perceive the employer's actions as a threat of reprisal ... associated with the union activity of certain employees."

Two other complaints -- that the district laid off a teacher for filing a grievance and that Castilleja interfered with the rights of another teacher when he told her there would be repercussions to whoever had distributed the Othello letter -- were deemed unfounded.

The district and the union have 20 days to appeal the PERC decision, said James Gasper, the union's attorney. He said no decision had been made whether to appeal on the complaints PERC turned down.

He said the order to offer Meredith her old job back was "vindication of her claim that she was targeted for being an advocate of the teachers."

Superintendent Castilleja said the district will discuss whether to appeal with its attorney. The district will not follow PERC's order before it decides on an appeal, he said.

Things at the elementary school now are calm, he said, a fact echoed by testimony given for the PERC report. The reason for that remains in dispute.

It's because Meredith has been teaching at the middle school this year, some said.

Others claim it's because Franklin is no longer the principal. One year after taking the job, she became the district's special services director.

"She opted to move to that (position)," Castilleja said. "That is not a move we made for her."

-- Jacques Von Lunen: 509-582-1402; jvonlunen@tricityherald.com

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