District says new board member’s age discrimination claim is conflict of interest
By Paul Thompson
New C-4 Board members Bob Stewart, Paul Alexander, and Barbara Polette were sworn into office on Thursday, April 15, although it wasn’t a sure thing until minutes before the meeting began.
Outgoing board member Allen Meyer read a prepared statement on behalf of the district before the swearing in, stating that the district believes that Polette, who was fired from her teaching position at Meadowmere Elementary last year, has a conflict of interest which will prohibit her from participating in certain finance-related votes.
Polette, who garnered the most votes in the April 5th election, fought the termination in a public hearing last year. She has since filed an age discrimination claim against the district.
“Because she has pending legal claims against the district, it may be impossible for her to be unbiased in board policy,” read Meyer from the two-page legal document. “…It is our understanding that Ms. Polette plans to abstain from voting on certain issues tonight.”
The letter also stated that while Polette has every right to pursue her claim against the district, the district believes she could be violating the school board’s policies on conflict of interest by simultaneously serving as a member of the school board. The district’s letter suggested two options for Polette to eliminate the alleged conflict of interest.
“This may be accomplished through a variety of means, either withdrawing her claim against the district, or by stepping back from the board,” read Meyer.
A last-second agreement, however, resulted in neither of those options. Minutes before the C-4 School Board meeting began, a compromise had been reached in which Polette agreed to abstain from certain finance-related votes until her claim had been cleared.
“That sentence that stated ‘I will abstain from voting’ was interjected at the last minute by (Grandview School District attorney) Shellie Guin,” said Meyer last Friday. “That was hand written.”
Meyer revealed that a version of the letter would still have been read before the swearing-in even if the agreement had been reached earlier, seeing as how Polette’s claim had been a closed subject until that night.
Polette has filed a claim with the Missouri Commission of Human Rights on the issue of age discrimination. The claim stems from her termination from Meadowmere Elementary School in April of last year. Polette appealed the termination in an open school board hearing last summer, but the board ultimately decided to uphold the district’s decision to fire the former special education teacher.
She was fired amid claims that she failed to properly test her students, didn’t comply with district curriculum and ultimately being deemed insubordinate. Testifying against Polette were Meadowmere Principal Lisa Walker and district Director of Special Services Susan Kirkpatrick, who were both named assistant superintendants early last week.
The defense for Polette argued that the district provided her with a “moving target” that was impossible to meet. They also argued that Polette was a “master of individualized education” with 10 years of experience in the district, and that she generally drew strong reviews from parents, several of whom testified on her behalf at the hearings.
Polette was the leading vote-getter of the 9 candidates who applied for the C-4 School Board, earning 16% of the vote. The conflict of interest concerns regarding her claim surfaced over the last couple of weeks, resulting in the agreement between Polette and the board that she would abstain from voting on issues related to finance until her claim had been cleared.
Although rare, legal issues between board members and school districts are not unprecedented.
“We’ve had school board members that have been involved in lawsuits against the district before.” Said Missouri School Board Association lawyer Susan Goldhammer.
Goldhammer said that while some issues may arise such as maintaining attorney-client privilege between the district and their lawyers, Polette still has the right to be on the board.
“Whether it had to be announced then and there, that’s up to the school district,” Goldhammer said.“It might put the public at ease to know that they had come to some sort of agreement.”
It is important to note that the claim with the Missouri Commission of Human Rights is not a lawsuit, but rather more of a preliminary step to see if a case could be made. Polette estimated that her claim should be decided one way or another within the month, give or take. What remains to be seen is whether or not she would proceed with a suit if the commission ruled in her favor.
“I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” she stated.
In the meantime, the two district staff who testified against Polette are preparing for their new positions among the top administrators, which they will begin on July 1st. Walker will fill the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction seat, vacated with the retirement of Barbara Tate. Kirkpatrick will fill the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources, vacated by the retirement of Debra Nelson.
Both positions work closely with the school board on issues impacting the district.