Gibbs v. East Providence School Committee, 051120 RISUP, PC-2017-1615

Docket Nº:PC-2017-1615
Opinion Judge:TAFT-CARTER, J.
Party Name:CHERYL GIBBS v. EAST PROVIDENCE SCHOOL COMMITTEE, and THE RHODE ISLAND BOARD OF EDUCATION FOR ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION
Attorney:For Plaintiff: Jeffrey D. Sowa, Esq. For Defendant: Stephanie J. Cote, Esq.; Paul V. Sullivan, Esq.
Case Date:May 11, 2020
Court:Superior Court of Rhode Island
 
FREE EXCERPT

CHERYL GIBBS

v.

EAST PROVIDENCE SCHOOL COMMITTEE, and THE RHODE ISLAND BOARD OF EDUCATION FOR ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION

No. PC-2017-1615

Superior Court of Rhode Island, Providence

May 11, 2020

For Plaintiff: Jeffrey D. Sowa, Esq.

For Defendant: Stephanie J. Cote, Esq.; Paul V. Sullivan, Esq.

DECISION

TAFT-CARTER, J.

The matter before the Court is an appeal from a decision of the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education[1] (the Council) upholding the Commissioner of Education's (Commissioner) affirming of the East Providence School Committee's (School Committee) decision not to renew Cheryl Gibbs' (Ms. Gibbs or the Petitioner) contract. Ms. Gibbs requests that this Court reverse the decision of the Council, and order that she be reinstated to her former position with full pay. The Counsel and School Committee oppose the Petitioner's appeal. For the reasons set forth below, this Court upholds the Council's decision. Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 §§ 16-13-4, 16-39-4, and G.L. 1956 § 42-35-15.

I

Facts and Travel

Since 1996, Ms. Gibbs was employed as a principal in the East Providence School Department. Rhode Island Department of Education Hr'g Tr. at 12, 70, Aug. 12, 2016 (Hr'g Tr.). From November 1, 2012 through October 31, 2015, she served pursuant to a group employment contract known as the East Providence Association of School Principals' Employment Agreement (the 2012 Contract). Hr'g Tr. at 12, 15, 70-71; Pet'r's Ex. 1, at 1. The 2012 Contract included a survival clause which reads as follows: "Negotiation for a new agreement between the Association and the School Committee shall commence no later than one hundred twenty (120) days prior to the expiration of this Agreement ending on November 30, 2015 ('End Date'). Should negotiations fail to commence and/or commence and extend beyond the End Date, the current Agreement shall continue in full force and effect until a new agreement is reached." Pet'r's Ex. 1, at 1.

Furthermore, the 2012 Contract provided that at the discretion of the Superintendent, "[e]very Administrator shall be granted . . . a term ('Individual Term') of no less than two (2) years. Once the Administrator has been employed as an Administrator in the District for five (5) years, the Individual Term shall be no less than three (3) years)." Pet'r's Ex. 1, § 4.1. Should the "District elect[ ] not to renew the Administrator upon the conclusion of his/her individual term, the District shall provide notice of its decision to the Administrator on or before March 1 of the year in which his/her individual term concludes." Pet'r's Ex. 1, § 5.6.2.

In addition to the contractual provisions, the School Administrators' Rights Act, (the ARA or the Act), limits an administrator's termination to situations where "just cause" exists. Section 16-12.1-2.1. Upon dismissal or nonrenewal of an administrator, the Act also requires the school committee to provide the administrator with "(1) a concise, clear, written statement, privately communicated, of the bases or reasons for the suspension, dismissal, or nonrenewal, and (2) notification of the right of the administrator to a prompt hearing, which shall be at the election of the administrator, and the right to be represented by counsel[.]" Section 16-12.1-3. Should the administrator request a hearing, he or she must be provided with "prompt notification stating the time and place of the hearing . . . The time and place set for the hearing shall allow sufficient opportunity to the administrator for preparation without undue delay." Section 16-12.1-3.

Ms. Gibbs most recently served as the principal at Orlo Avenue Elementary School in East Providence (the School) until she was placed on paid administrative leave in August 2014. Hr'g Tr. at 12, 70-71. Ms. Gibbs was evaluated in 2013 and 2014. Hr'g Tr. at 77-78, 83; see also Resp't's Exs. 5, 6. In 2013, "on a scale of 'exceeds expectations,' 'meets expectations,' or 'does not meet expectations, '" she was rated as "does not meet expectations" for "Professional Foundations," and was placed on an improvement plan. Hr'g Tr. at 77-78; see also Resp't's Ex. 5. In 2014, she continued not to meet expectations for Professional Foundations, and additionally she was rated "Unsatisfactory" in "Professional Practice." Resp't's Ex. 6.

Then, in 2014, the School went into "priority status," meaning that the "scores were below where they needed to be." Hr'g Tr. at 75, 83. Due to the School's priority status, the Department of Education required a committee consisting mainly of faculty and administrators from the School to compile an intervention plan to improve the educational performance of the School. Hr'g Tr. at 83-84. One intervention option that the committee could choose was to remove the principal. Hr'g Tr. at 83-84.

On August 12, 2014, the Superintendent of Schools for East Providence, (Former Superintendent), provided Ms. Gibbs with written notice that she was recommending that the School Committee terminate her at the August 26, 2014 School Committee meeting, "for cause because of Unsatisfactory Performance." Hr'g Tr. at 87-88; Resp't's Ex. 7, at 1. The Former Superintendent wrote in the letter that Ms. Gibbs could avoid termination through resignation. Resp't's Ex. 7, at 1. In the same document, the Former Superintendent indicated to Ms. Gibbs the following:

"Unsatisfactory Performance is indicated by the following: • "Removal as principal recommended by the entire staff when selecting interventions for school reform with the Rhode Island Department of Education following Orlo Ave receiving the classification as a Priority School.

• "Teachers report an adversarial work environment and/or feel that they are not treated as professionals.

• "An environment of open communication and dialogue does not exist at Orlo.

• "Teachers do not receive timely and/or meaningful feedback on their performance and at the conclusion of this school year, teacher's ratings were not finalized in the EPSS system.

• "Students are not adequately prepared for the state assessment and/or other end-of-year assessments. School is designated as priority. Student scores are on the decline.

• "Employees report feeling bullied.

• "You have told employees that you have a race card and will use it.

• "You reprimand teachers publically.

• "Newer/weaker teachers feel preyed upon.

• "You have been verbally abusive to staff.

• "Staff feels that you are unapproachable.

• "You have exhibited inappropriate behavior towards staff, including sexually inappropriate comments, and inappropriate touching.

• "Grievances filed against you by staff have gone unanswered.

• "Teachers indicate that you are too busy and cannot take the time to talk to them, emails are ignored or are not responded to within a reasonable time, and information is not conveyed in a timely fashion, not at all, or is incorrect." Resp't's Ex. 7, at 1.

Ms. Gibbs acknowledges that while she did receive the August 12, 2014 letter from the Former Superintendent, she only received the first page. Hr'g Tr. at 96-97. The Former Superintendent testified that the letter was sent by certified mail, and that to her knowledge, both pages of the letter were included by the secretary. Hr'g Tr. at 97-98. Ms. Gibbs did not resign, and the Former Superintendent recommended that the School Committee terminate Ms. Gibbs. Hr'g Tr. at 92. However, while the School Committee approved the Former Superintendent's decision to start the process of the termination, no final action was taken by the School Committee to terminate Ms. Gibbs at that time, and Ms. Gibbs continued in her role as principal. Hr'g Tr. at 93-96.

In August of 2014, Ms. Gibbs stated that she had "several discussions" with the Former Superintendent, including one in which the Former Superintendent would find "another position" for Ms. Gibbs, "possibly as an assistant principal." Hr'g Tr. at 76. At a later meeting with Ms. Gibbs, the Former Superintendent, the human resources director, and the affirmative action officer, "it was suggested to [Ms. Gibbs] that taking a year off would be a better idea." Hr'g Tr. at 76. However, Ms. Gibbs preferred the option of becoming an assistant principal. Id. at 77. Nonetheless, in August of 2014, Ms. Gibbs was placed on paid administrative leave. The administrative leave ended in March 2016. While on administrative leave Ms. Gibbs was "[w]aiting to hear from the School Department as to where [the] next steps in [her] career would be." Hr'g Tr. at 79.

The 2012 Contract expired on October 31, 2015. Ms. Gibbs was not assigned another position, notice of nonrenewal was not provided per the terms of the 2012 Agreement, and negotiations for a new agreement never commenced. As such, Ms. Gibbs asserts that the 2012 Agreement remained in "full force and effect[.]" Hr'g Tr. at 15-17, 72; Pet'r's Ex. 1, at 1 § 5.6. Further, Ms. Gibbs testified that after the end date of the 2012 Contract, she continued to be "paid under the terms of that agreement[.]" Hr'g Tr. at 72. Additionally, Ms. Gibbs stated in her sworn testimony that she was not "approached regarding a new contract" in the 120 days preceding October 31, 2015, and she never received "any notice of a recommendation for nonrenewal of the contract[.]" Hr'g Tr. at 72-73.

On November 30, 2015, a new Superintendent (the Superintendent) was hired. Hr'g Tr. at 15-17; Pet'r's Ex. 1, at 1. By the time the Superintendent assumed the position, Ms. Gibbs had been on paid administrative leave for over a year. Hr'g Tr. at 22. The Superintendent never spoke to Ms. Gibbs; however, she formed the opinion that a more qualified administrator or principal could be found based on information...

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