Federal probe finds in favor of school whistleblower
Casa Grande Valley Newspapers
March 13, 2008
Was an advocate for the rights of limited-English speakers
By MARK COWLING, Editor
March 13, 2008
"The District's actions were intended to intimidate, threaten, coerce, and
discriminate against you," the the U.S. Department of Education's Office of
Civil Rights (OCR) reported to her last month at the conclusion of its
district agreed to pay $57,519 to the whistleblower in a settlement agreement
between Florence Unified School District No. 1 and the OCR, signed by the
superintendent and School Board president on Feb. 13.
After withholding for taxes and retirement, she was actually paid $27,160, plus
$4,143 for documented medical and COBRA expenses after the district prematurely
terminated her insurance without her knowledge.
The district, on the other hand, argued that its actions to demote and terminate
the employee were for unacceptable job performance, not because she was a
However, the OCR concluded the district could not show, by its treatment of any
other employees, that its handling of the whistleblower was usual and customary.
The Florence Reminder agreed not to identify the whistleblower by name at this
time, as she begins a new job with another Arizona school district. After two
years with the Florence district, she left the district's employ at the end of
the last school year.
The damages the district paid are only meant to cover the pay she would have
received had she been treated properly, according to Silverio Garcia, a school
rights activist from Avondale. She could still argue for pain and suffering and
punitive damages in court. Garcia said she isn't likely to be the only one.
"The district has opened itself up for big things to come if people wish to
pursue them. .... This is just the beginning," Garcia said.
Richard Lyons, a Mesa attorney who represented the district during the OCR
investigation, said Tuesday, "The district has no comment and will continue to
have no comment."
In 2006, Garcia filed a 1,744-page federal complaint alleging that students and
parents with limited English skills were not being accommodated as required by
federal law in the Florence school district. That complaint resulted in an
agreement for corrective action between the OCR and the district a year ago.
While he was researching that complaint, Garcia said he began to see how the
district was treating the whistleblower. Soon after completing the first
complaint, he began preparing a complaint on behalf of the whistleblower. The
OCR notified the whistleblower by letter that it had agreed to investigate the
allegations on May 31.
Specifically, the complaint alleged the district retaliated against her for
advocating for national origin and language minority students, and for
participating in an OCR complaint. After an investigation, the OCR agreed.
A 10-page letter from the OCR to the whistleblower on Feb. 20 concluded:
"OCR finds by a preponderance of credible evidence that the District knew of
your participation in the original OCR complaint before it decided to end your
employment relationship. OCR further finds that the District wanted you removed
from your position in retaliation for your participation in the prior OCR
complaint and your advocacy on behalf of ELL students and parents. The
District's actions were intended to intimidate, threaten, coerce, and
discriminate against you for the purposes of interfering with your rights
secured by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964."
A fourth-generation Florence native, the whistleblower said she has been in
education for more than 14 years. She earned a master's degree in English as a
Second Language from Arizona State University at the end of 2006.
Garcia said the fact the district would treat a "hometown girl" in this manner
is surprising: "If this can happen to a hometown, home-grown person, you can
pull this stuff off on anybody. So there's no limits to who they'll do this to.
"... She was outspoken, thorough in her understanding (of what federal law
required). They just didn't want to hear it," Garcia said.
Or as the whistleblower put it, "I was in trouble for standing up for employees
and standing up for ELL kids. ... If I'm guilty of anything I'm guilty of being
Former superintendent Dr. Richard Sagar commented Wednesday in an e-mail reply
to a request for comment: "I always held (her) in high regard and would have
recommended her for renewal had I not taken a leave of absence. I believe there
were board members who unduly influenced the decision to sever her employment."
record of closed door session
According to the OCR, individuals filing a complaint or participating in an
investigation are protected by federal law against harassment, retaliation or
intimidation. Nevertheless, the district made a preliminary decision not to
renew the whistleblower's contract in January 2007, "soon after the District
learned that the original OCR investigation had been filed and when it knew or
suspected that you were behind it," the OCR's letter to her said.
In a Jan. 17, 2007 closed-door session with then-Superintendent Sagar and the
School Board, one board member discussed three principals, one assistant to the
superintendent and the whistleblower, all of whom the board wanted dismissed.
Since this meeting had been posted to discuss the superintendent's evaluation,
Sagar immediately indicated to the board that this discussion was a violation of
Arizona open meeting laws, he told investigators. He said he told the board he
felt that the individuals were doing a fine job and he would not recommend them
for non-renewal of their contracts.
During the same meeting, Sagar offered his resignation effective June 20, 2007.
The board accepted his resignation and placed him on paid administrative leave
until the end of his contract.
One board member confirmed later to the OCR that the split between Sagar and the
board was based on the fact that the board wanted three principals and one
administrator out. The board member claimed he never brought up the
whistleblower's name. Other board members and the county attorney were adamant
that no individuals' names were ever mentioned in the executive session.
But the OCR ultimately found Sagar's testimony, "largely corroborated by his
wife and by one board member making a statement against interest, coupled with
his resignation based on significant differences of opinion with the board, very
No minutes of the meeting could be found. "Either no minutes were generated or
the minutes were destroyed," the OCR concluded.
Garcia asked, "Was it so revealing and brutal, they didn't want a record?"
It was the duty of the vice president - at the time, Hank Gooday - to keep the
Gooday was asked Tuesday what happened to the minutes. He said in an e-mail
response, "I remember in general that we had a meeting, but I don't remember all
the details. And according to the Arizona Revised Statutes, I can't discuss any
matters discussed inside an executive session outside of those meetings, except
with another active board member. If I do, I'm in violation of the law."
The OCR said both Sagar and former Assistant to the Superintendent Jeff Strand
testified that the whistleblower did excellent work and provided excellent
training to more than 100 teachers within the district.
But the whistleblower got along less well with her subsequent supervisor,
then-Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Joel Knorr.
On June 15, 2006, the whistleblower was given a "letter of direction" telling
her to make no written statements concluding that the district was in violation
of the law. She was directed to bring her concerns to the attention of
administrators through the proper channels. She was prohibited from addressing
the School Board directly.
The OCR concluded, "the clear import or the letter was to intimidate, coerce, or
threaten (the whistleblower) from informing others about possible Title VI
violations in the District."
Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin
in activities and programs that receive federal money from the U.S. Department
In an interview Tuesday, the whistleblower was asked why the district would
intimidate and harass her, rather than work to implement her suggestions for
improving service to ELLs. She was momentarily stumped, except to say there was
a personality conflict between herself and Knorr from the beginning.
"Mr. Knorr is a huge bully and Mr. (Tony) Jimenez (at the time, assistant
superintendent for human resources) was right beside him. ... Joel Knorr thought
he was messing with a really stupid blonde. Why would he have done things so
She brought in her own mediators to meetings after, she says, Knorr and Jimenez
"began to tag-team me. I realized I needed witnesses in the room."
In his second interview with the OCR, Knorr admitted he had read the
whistleblower's e-mails on approximately six occasions. She was taken off e-mail
lists in which she had previously been included.
Knorr, contacted by e-mail at his new school district, provided only an
Garcia said Nine approached the whistleblower on April 6, 2007, just 11 days
after Nine began working for the district, and informed her, "You either resign
or we're not going to give you a good reference." He did not present official
notification from the board, as required by law, or a reason, Garcia said.
After the OCR made an agreement with the district for corrective action, "I was
crying; I told Dr. Nine I wanted to stay and be part of the solution," the
whistleblower said. "I was never part of the problem."
But she says Nine told her, "I'm sorry, your window of opportunity is closed in
Garcia said the she was excluded from meetings, and when she did attend
meetings, "they would talk down to her."
Her ELL responsibilities were diminished until she was transferred to Copper
Basin K-8 School with responsibility to implement a "Newcomers' Program" with no
materials, no funding and no direction, she said.
Satisfied with the outcome
Before the first federal complaint was filed, the whistleblower said she found
small children sitting in the school library all day; teachers said they
couldn't teach these students because they didn't know English.
She said she also helped the district to properly report its ELL students so the
district could finally receive all the federal funding it was due.
The whistleblower said she was generally satisfied with the outcome of the OCR
"Not one thing I alleged was found to be false. ... The remedies will never take
care of the suffering and the embarrassment and the humiliation. The outcome
exonerated me from a lot of the accusations that the district made."
The remedial action required of the district included removing all negative
statements from the whistleblower's personnel file and providing a draft letter
of her "positive attributes," on district letterhead and signed by the
After telling the OCR that the whistleblower was unprofessional and a poor
teacher, Superintendent Nine had better things to say about her in the required
letter, dated Feb. 15, 2008:
"(She) cares deeply for kids and is always their advocate. She is truly
passionate about the English Language Learner program and is tireless in her
efforts to assist those children. Additionally, (she) is a veteran instructor
with a broad range of knowledge of ELL issues.
"Finally, one will always find (her) to be kind and caring, with the best of
intentions," Nine wrote.
The whistleblower said the most important thing she learned was how valuable her
civil rights are.
"Martin Luther King Day, this past January, meant more than ever to me. I never
had a clue."
ęCasa Grande Valley Newspapers Inc. 2008