Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

November 27, 2012

Board won't hear DOS complaint

By Heather Mullinix
Assistant editor

CROSSVILLE — The Cumberland County Board of Education will not hear a complaint against Director of Schools Aarona VanWinkle, Chairman Jim Blalock said.

The complaint was filed by Barry Brown, whose complaint against a teacher was denied a hearing by the board in September. Brown alleges VanWinkle did not follow school board policy in handling his complaint by failing to adhere to prescribed timelines and withholding information from the board and parties to the complaint.

Blalock told the Chronicle, "The executive committee [chairman, vice chairman and director of schools] determined we would not place this item on the agenda. We sent a copy of the letter [of complaint] to every board member and gave them all an opportunity to request it be put on the agenda and determine if the board would hear the complaint."

As of last Tuesday afternoon, the deadline for the agenda, no board member had requested to include the matter on the November agenda.

Blalock said the complaint ventured into areas the board could not discuss in public without violating the teacher's contract or state and federal law in regards to educational matters involving a student.

Brown filed a complaint against a Homestead Elementary teacher in March 2012, and the matter progressed to the DOS in May. School board policy 5.501 states, "If the director is unable to resolve a complaint to the satisfaction of all parties concerned within 10 days following step 5 [receipt of written complaint by the director of schools and a conference with all parties], he/she shall, at the request of the complainant or teacher, send a report of his/her investigation along with his/her findings and recommendations, in writing, to the board and copies to all parties concerned."

Brown said VanWinkle failed to adhere to the 10-day time limit, stating the board was not notified for several months. He also said he did not receive copies of the materials sent to the board members.

VanWinkle told the Chronicle, "The policy was followed, carefully."

VanWinkle noted the letter of findings sent to the parents included information regarding teacher evaluation data and student data that she could not disclose to the board, and that information was removed from the information sent to the board. Teacher evaluation data is not allowed to be released under state law without written consent of the teacher. School personnel are also prevented from discussing individual student academic achievement.

"My hands were tied because of the laws I have to follow," VanWinkle said. "We followed the policy and I shared with him [Brown] the information I could. I shared with the board what I could share, but I was not at liberty to discuss specifics of the teacher or student."

Brown also said VanWinkle misrepresented the situation to the board when the matter was brought up for discussion in September. VanWinkle told the board the student had been removed from the teacher's classroom per the parents' request. Brown said the agreed upon plan for alternate instruction was not implemented by the school; however, VanWinkle told the Chronicle the student's academic placement was monitored weekly.

Brown also stated VanWinkle withheld information from the board regarding the reasons for the student being removed from the classroom.

VanWinkle said all such complaints are fully investigated, providing general information on the steps she takes in such instances. After listening to the complaint and meeting with the teacher, she checks with the principal or immediate supervisor to determine what has occurred to that time. Students, other teachers and other adults assigned to a teacher's classroom may also be interviewed individually to gain information needed to determine if a complaint has merit. If the director finds the complaint does have merit, immediate action is taken which can include an improvement plan for the teacher, suspension without pay or dismissal. If the director does not feel the data supports the complaint, the matter is closed.

Brown's letter of complaint asked the board to reconsider the merits of his original complaint in light of what he believed to be violation of school board policy and asked that a neutral party be appointed to investigate the allegations against VanWinkle and staff members in regard to the complaint. That would require action by the board.

Brown previously attempted to address the board at the meeting in October, but was not permitted to speak during the public comments portion of the meeting, with Blalock stating the board's decision regarding the complaint was final.

It's a unique situation, Blalock said, previously noting there were not provisions in policy or state law for a complaint procedure against a director of schools. It is also a complicated situation, he said, with the board limited in what can be discussed in public without violating state or federal law or contractual agreements. However, the board would have to meet in public to discuss the complaint.

"I'm trying to do the best I can with the advice from our attorney without violating federal or state law," Blalock said.

The board will meet Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Central Office.