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Superintendent Sheila Mitchell violated state statute last year and had to complete mandatory training after she transferred former high school principal Ronnie Fields to an administrative position that was not properly posted as a vacancy, according to an investigative report released by the Office of Education Accountability.
Mitchell, however, said in a phone interview Monday that she disagrees with the OEA’s findings, and that according to state law cited by the Kentucky Department of Education, she was well within her rights as superintendent met the required time frame to transfer Fields.
“It’s very frustrating that the OEA and KDE disagree on state law and what would be considered a violation,” Mitchell said of the investigative report’s findings. “As superintendent, I will continue to follow state law as interpreted by the board attorney as well as Kentucky Department of Education.”
According to the state agency’s final report from December 2013, two allegations against Mitchell were filed with the Office of Education Accountability (OEA) regarding the posting of two staff positions: one for a special education teacher at Emma B. Ward Elementary and one regarding Fields’ new position as director of district-wide programs and operations for the 2013-2014 school year.
On May 21 of 2013, Fields submitted a letter to Mitchell requesting a transfer from high school principal to the renewed director position at central office, and that he would resign as principal on June 30 and start in his new position July 1, the report said.
The Anderson County Board of Education approved the job description for “transition administrator and director of district-wide programs and operations” one day before Fields submitted his letter of resignation to Mitchell, according to the OEA investigative report.
Mitchell said she would not comment on any personnel matters in relation to the investigative report.
School board attorney Robert Chenoweth — in email correspondence provided to the OEA in September 2013 by Mitchell — made it clear that the superintendent had voiced concerns about Fields earlier in 2013, “as Fields was likely to resign that position, but not waive his entitlement to another administrative position for which he held the requisite certification and was otherwise qualified.”
“In other words (Fields) had no intention of resigning his position as principal unless he was selected for the central office position,” the report said of Fields’ transfer request.
Mitchell sent Fields a response in a May 29 letter titled “notice of change of assignment and reduction in salary and responsibility,” the report noted.
The letter, in addition to accepting Fields’ resignation, added that the reason why Fields’ salary would be reduced by $6,079 was because “your extra service percent index will be less than that of a high school principal and therefore reducing your work time responsibility.”
Mitchell failed to post the vacancy within a 30-day time frame to the Kentucky Department of Education’s jobs website or to request a 30-day waiver, the report said, and no interviews were conducted for the position.
This was done on the recommendation of Chenoweth, Mitchell told the OEA at the time of the investigation, who explained to Mitchell that Fields’ administrator status is protected under the Fair Demotion Act of 1972 spelled out in KRS 161.765.
Chenoweth advised Mitchell to consider a lateral transfer for Fields from one administrative position to another, or otherwise she would be forced to demote Fields and trigger the possibility of a demotion hearing to be held.
Kentucky administrators who have completed three years of service and are demoted are entitled to a private or public demotion hearing, according to KRS 161.765, with the school board to determine if such a demotion was justified.
Fields spent three years as the Anderson County High School principal until Mitchell transferred him to the director position.
Chenoweth told Mitchell that it was her legal “obligation” to place Fields as an administrator elsewhere or she would be in the position of breaching Fields’ contract as a tenured administrator, according to the report.
“When you as a superintendent are confronted with circumstances beyond your control in which an unassigned employee has a contractual right to an assignment, your obligation to honor that contractual right supersedes the statutory posting requirement,” Chenoweth wrote in his email to Mitchell provided to the OEA.
The Office of Education Accountability, however, disagreed with Chenoweth in its final report.
Although Mitchell had the authority to transfer Fields to the position, the OEA concluded in its report, she did not have the authority to violate the statutory posting requirements.
“In this case, whether the board created a new position in the district which required certification or simply changed the titles and duties of an existing assistant superintendent position, there was a vacancy in the district,” the report said.
According to an Anderson News article published in June 2013, Mitchell said the director of district-wide programs and operations was “not a newly created position, just a position that has been vacant with a title change and similar but different job duties.”
Chenoweth’s reliance on KRS 161.765(2) — the state statute spelling out administrative demotion procedure — rather than KRS 160.380(2) — the statute detailing the process for posting a vacancy — was incorrect, the OEA determined in its report.
Fields cannot be entitled to the protections of a statute regarding an administrator demotion if Mitchell never officially notified Fields that he would be demoted, the report found.
If Mitchell had notified Fields of his demotion and Fields appealed, then Chenoweth’s analysis would have been correct, the report said.
“However, the desire of the district to avoid the appeal process cannot be used to obviate compliance with KRS 160.380(2),” the report concluded.
The OEA also found in its investigative report that Mitchell violated statute when she failed to post a special education teaching position at Emma B. Ward Elementary for the 2013-2014 school year to the state department of education’s job website or request a waiver.
As a resolution to both allegations, Mitchell was required to take a total of three hours of training on the vacancy posting statute, and to send documentation of her training by Jan.15, 2014.
Mitchell said she disagreed with the Office of Education Accountability on its analysis of what does and does not constitute a violation when it comes to personnel transfers.
According to materials Mitchell said were provided to her during her training mandated by the OEA, the Kentucky Department of Education refers to KRS 160.380 2(a) and KRS 161.760(2) in giving superintendents the authority to transfer staff between Feb. 1 and July 15 or 30 days before the first student attendance day.
Superintendents have the ability to transfer personnel within the district, Mitchell said, or principals can reassign staff within their own schools for the following school year according to these statutes.
Mitchell said she’s frustrated with the apparent disagreement between both state education agencies, and that board attorney Chenoweth clearly agrees with KDE’s interpretation of the law.
“The outcome of the (KDE) training indicated that I did follow (statute),” Mitchell said Monday. “Clearly, OEA and KDE disagree.”
Mitchell said although she had the opportunity to file an appeal with the Office of Education Accountability and its findings, she did not.
“There was no reason to file a follow up,” Mitchell said. “OEA gave a ruling and I could file an appeal if I so chose.”