FULL ACCOUNT OF DISCIPLINARY ACTIONS AGAINST SEVEN GENEVA TEACHERS
2019 BOARD OF EDUCATION ISSUES AND DISCIPLINARY ACTIONS
On April 5th at about 4:45 pm, six GEA members received letters from the Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources, Dr. Adam Law, via email that informed them they were subject to a fact finding process. They would be interviewed in the near future, and this may result in disciplinary action. No explanation regarding the nature of what the fact finding process was about was included. The six GEA members were Jason Santo, Emma Cole, Jessie Egan and Sara Salvato from Geneva High school, Kim Hardt, a Geneva Middle School teacher, and Lisa Murphy, a kindergarten teacher from Williamsburg Elementary School.
The interviews focused on actions GEA members engaged in during the 2019 Geneva BOE elections. At 2:06 pm on March 22nd, a local blogger posted that an “eyewitness” revealed that election materials were being delivered to the high school. A resident of Batavia followed up this posting on Sunday afternoon, March 31, with a formal complaint against Kim Hardt for using Geneva Middle School South’s mail address when filling out and filing paperwork for the formation of a Political Action Committee (PAC) formed by the GEA called Geneva Educators 4 Students. (This PAC was formed to support three GEA endorsed candidates for the BOE: Katie Frye, Alicia Saxton, and Robert “Larry” Cabeen.) The GEA was informed by Board President Mark Grosso on Monday, April 1st that in addition to the Batavia resident’s formal complaint, other informal complaints about other inappropriate activities that GEA members may have engaged in were also being investigated. The GEA did request to see the informal complaints but was told by the district that they were not made in a manner that left documents that could be obtained through a Freedom of Information Act Request.
All six of these members were questioned on Monday, April 15th by Dr. Law and the school board’s attorney, James Petrungaro. GEA president Kevin Gannon and IEA UniServ Director Bonnie Booth accompanied the members to the fact finding interviews. This is when the GEA and these six members became fully aware of the nature of the complaints.
Emma Cole, Jessie Egan, and Sara Salvato were questioned in regards to receiving an envelope in their school building mailboxes on Friday afternoon, March 22nd, that contained door hangers, maps, and instructions for a canvassing effort in support of the GEA endorsed BOE candidates. The canvassing was to take place the following morning March 23rd (a Saturday) and again a week later on March 30th (also a Saturday). Both Emma Cole and Jessie Egan did receive these envelopes and explained this during the fact-finding interviews. They also explained that they did not expect or intend for the canvassing materials to be delivered to their mailbox at school.
Jessie Egan picked up her envelope after school on the 22nd. Emma Cole did not retrieve her envelope until the morning of March 30th when she was told at the canvassing rendezvous site that the materials were delivered on Friday the 22nd, prior to spring break. She had to go back to the high school and get the envelope. Sara Salvato never received an envelope with canvassing materials at all. She did participate in the canvassing. All of this was openly discussed during the fact-finding interviews. During the interviews for these three, it was also explained that Cathy Fuller, a Western Avenue librarian, organized the canvassing materials for their delivery to the high school and four other schools in the district. As a result of this new information, Cathy Fuller received a letter on Wednesday, April 10th, indicating she was now part of the fact finding process that may lead to disciplinary action.
In total, seven sealed envelopes containing canvassing materials, maps, and instructions were prepared and delivered. None of the canvassing materials contained inside the envelopes were distributed to colleagues or to students at any of the schools to which they were delivered.
Jason Santo was also questioned about the envelopes, but when he explained he did not receive one, he was then asked about his participation in a March 19 Facebook Live Q & A that streamed after a BOE Candidates Forum hosted by the Geneva High School Social Studies Department at Geneva Middle School South. After the forum ended, Jason, Cathy Fuller, the three GEA endorsed candidates, and another community member decided to ask a few follow-up questions to these three BOE Candidates live on Facebook. The possibility of doing the follow-up interview after the forum had been previously discussed by Jason and the community member. They used an unlocked/open room down the hall from where the forum was held, and Jason interviewed the candidates while the community member filmed and Cathy Fuller observed. Jason and Cathy were not acting per GEA request or as agents of the GEA. They were acting as engaged Geneva Community members and concerned citizens.
Lisa Murphy was questioned about a BOE candidate’s visit to her Kindergarten classroom. Lisa invited the three GEA endorsed candidates to visit and observe her classroom. Two of these candidates were personal friends of Lisa’s, and she had recently met the third. Only Katie Frye accepted the offer. Katie observed and participated in a journaling activity and a math activity on April 1st. She was in the classroom for about forty-five minutes. Katie was not introduced as a BOE candidate and did not address the upcoming election in any way during her visit to the classroom. After the visit, Katie posted a live chat from her car on Facebook. Her remarks were very complimentary of Lisa’s classroom, her students, and the school district. That evening, on her own time, acting as an engaged community member, Lisa saw the post and responded to it. In her response, Lisa thanked Katie for her visit, stated having this kind of BOE member, “is the dream,” and encouraged followers on Katie’s Facebook page to “make it happen” in the election, which was the following day.
Kim Hardt was questioned about her use of Geneva Middle School South’s address when filling out and filing forms to create the PAC Geneva Educators 4 Students. She explained that the GEA has been permitted per contract language to use this address for GEA business for the past ten years that she has served as the GEA treasurer, so she used it again for this purpose. She was unaware that using it for a PAC was an issue, and the PAC was closed after the election so the address would not be used again for this purpose.
Cathy Fuller was interviewed on April 24th for two reasons. First, she was asked about her role in the planning and filming of the Facebook Live post following the March 19th BOE Candidates Forum. She explained that she was aware that the live posting may take place after the forum and observed it when it did. She did not participate in filming, interviewing, or posting this interview.
Second, Cathy was asked about preparing and delivering envelopes for canvassing to Emma Cole and Jessie Egan. She explained that these materials were produced at her home and were not prepared during compensated time or with district resources. Her 20 year old son, who was home on spring break, delivered these sealed envelopes to seven teachers at five buildings in the district in the afternoon on Friday March 22nd. She confirmed that Emma Cole and Jessie Egan did have envelopes delivered to them, but that Sara Salvato did not. She was not asked to whom the other envelopes were delivered.
None of these educators were given the opportunity to speak on their own behalf or ask questions.
The outcome of the fact-finding investigation was that Emma Cole, Jessie Egan, and Sara Salvato all received what the Board is calling, “Letters of Direction.” The letters clearly state that there was no evidence that they had violated Board Policy but the letters were being placed in their personnel files anyway. Emma, Jessie, and Sara have written rebuttals that are also being placed in their personnel files in response to these, “Letters of Direction.”
Kim Hardt, Lisa Murphy, Cathy Fuller, and Jason Santo have received Notices to Remedy. The Notice to Remedy is given to an employee as a last course of action prior to dismissal. The action must be taken if the reason for a possible dismissal can be remediated by the employee and a plan for remediation is included. This is a very serious consequence, which means that disciplinary action against each of these four teachers, if the remediation is not followed or there is a violation of any school board policy, could be dismissal. The Notice to Remedy is permanently placed into their personnel file with no mechanism to have it removed in the future.
Kim, Lisa, Cathy, and Jason have written formal responses to be placed in their personnel files with the Notice to Remedy.
The GEA has initiated two class grievances on behalf of these seven members. One grievance is for the Letter of Directions being placed in the personnel files of Emma Cole, Jessie Egan, and Sara Salvato. The other is against the issuing of the Notice to Remedy and its placement in the personnel files of Jason Santo, Cathy Fuller, Lisa Murphy, and Kim Hardt.
GEA POSITION RESPONSE:
Sara Salvato did nothing inappropriate or against Board policy. She should be issued a letter from the board indicating such and that this was confirmed during fact finding. The statement in Sara’s letter “the Board of Education has determined that there is not sufficient evidence to suggest that you violated Board Policy” hints that there was some evidence but not enough to take action. This is not the case. There was NO evidence, and this should be stated clearly in a letter to Sara.
Jessie Egan and Emma Cole were not aware that envelopes would be delivered to their mailboxes, did not violate Board policy, and should not have a letter of direction placed in their personnel file. A “Letter of Direction” is not part of the existing contract language and not part of the Progressive Discipline process outlined in the contract. If, as their letters state, “the Board of Education has determined that there is not sufficient evidence to suggest that you violated Board Policy,” then no permanent artifact in a personnel file is warranted, particularly one that is not noted in the teacher contract or BOE policies.
Kim Hardt used an inappropriate address when forming the Geneva Educators 4 Students PAC. Kim has always used the school address for GEA business in her role as GEA Secretary for the past ten years. The PAC is now closed. She has no previous disciplinary issues and should have relevant Board policies and expectations clearly explained to her and receive a verbal warning and written follow-up to this incident.
Jason Santo and Cathy Fuller were acting as citizens after the BOE Candidates’ Forum and should not be disciplined as teachers for these actions that took place after work hours at a publicly attended event.
Cathy Fuller did have envelopes delivered to secretaries who placed them in teacher mailboxes. Neither the secretaries’ time nor the mailboxes should have been used for this purpose. As a first time offense for a teacher with no prior disciplinary issues, Cathy should have relevant Board policies and expectations clearly explained to her and receive a verbal warning and perhaps written follow-up to this incident.
Lisa Murphy should have included all nine candidates in her invitation to visit her classroom or none at all. This is also a first time offense for Lisa who has no previous disciplinary issues. Lisa should have relevant Board policies and expectations clearly explained to her and receive a verbal warning and perhaps written follow-up to this incident.
None of these first time offenses rise to the level of dismissal, which is what a Notice to Remedy indicates.
These Notice to Remedy letters not only address the specific Board Policy the teachers are accused of violating, but also any and all Board Policies. This means that any violation of any Board Policy by any of these teachers in the future is grounds for dismissal. Below is an excerpt from the Notice to Remedy letters that each teacher received from the BOE.
Some sections have been underlined here for clarity:
Required Corrective Action:
You must cease and desist from violating the Board policies, laws and regulations detailed above, as well as all other Board policies, for the remainder of your employment as a tenured teacher in the School district;
You must review all Board Policies and must review the laws and regulations cited above and shall seek the guidance of administration or attend professional development to understand the duties that are charged of you as a public employee;
The requirement of the Notice to Remedy will remain in effect for the duration of your employment by the Board of Education. Your failure to comply with each and every requirement of this notice to Remedy may result in termination of your employment.
The language in the Notice to Remedy sent to the four educators is clearly inclusive of all Board policies, stated twice, and for the duration of employment, and failure to comply may result in termination for each of these four excellent educators.
There are over 400 pages of Board policies.
Both IEA and independent labor attorneys have reviewed the Required Corrective Action statement and have communicated to the GEA that it means exactly what it says. These four would have their careers in jeopardy if any violation of any other Board policy occurs at any time for the duration of their careers.
The GEA stands firmly behind these educators and feels a career long consequence that may end in termination for any further violation of any Board policy is an inappropriate consequence for these first time, single violations committed by Kim, Cathy, and Lisa. The GEA disputes the Board’s contention that Jason Santo and Cathy Fuller violated Board Policy after the Candidate Forum on March 19th.