Proviso District 209’s school board approved the settlement of a breach-of-contract lawsuit at its Aug. 8 meeting, but the vote was not OKd by a state-appointed financial oversight panel that is tasked with overseeing the district’s finances. As a result, it is now unclear if the attorneys for both sides will go back to the drawing board, or if the case will end up in court.
Dr. Joan McGarry, a former district employee, sued D209 and Superintendent Nettie Collins-Hart last year for breach of contract, arguing that she was wrongly terminated from her job after one year as director of professional development, teaching and learning, in 2010. According to McGarry’s attorney, Steven Glink, he and D209’s counsel had reached a $74,000 settlement. But that agreement is now moot, following the oversight board’s failure to back the board’s approval.
“I don’t think they’re making a good decision,” Glink said. “The [D209’s] attorney and I agreed on a figure that we thought was fair. This, potentially, can save them [D209] about $40,000 in liabilities and in attorney fees.”
McGarry’s complaint, filed in July 2010, asked that she be rehired in the same position for the 2010-2011 school year, or be compensated one year’s salary ($114,094.96) “plus the costs of all benefits … and reasonable attorneys fees.”
“There were some reservations … as to whether there was a strong case,” said Jim Popernik, chairman of the oversight board, of McGarry’s argument. “And so rather than approve the settlement I think we’re prepared to have them [two parties] take it to court and see what the judge says.”
The case boils down to a disagreement about the timing of a notice McGarry was given by Collins-Hart on April 30, 2010, announcing the superintendent’s recommendation that the board vote to not rehire McGarry.
The board did, in fact, vote against renewing McGarry’s contract, at its May 10, 2010 meeting, and she was let go when the contract ended, on June 30, 2010.
McGarry’s case argues that she was wrongfully terminated because her one-year contract required D209 to inform her 60 days prior to the end of the school year, if it intended not to rehire her. The 2009-2010 school year ended on June 4, 2010, so she was not given a 60-day forewarning, the suit alleges. Furthermore, the contract states that if D209 fails to provide this notice, then McGarry is subsequently rehired for another year.
D209’s attorney admitted that such language does, in fact, appear in McGarry’s contract, but denied its “application.” Attorneys for D209 were not available for comment, but Popernik, said, in short, that D209 argued that McGarry was given 60 days notice because her contract expired on June 30, and Collins-Hart sent the letter on April 30.
The settlement failed before the oversight board earlier this month for lack of a second, but Popernik, who was not in favor of the settlement, said he hadn’t seen the actual contract.
Popernik said that not having read the contract was not an issue because, “we had the board’s attorney and the insurance attorney,” describe the contract to the oversight board members.
It is not clear why McGarry’s contract was not renewed, as D209 refused to answer questions about the matter and other issues surrounding the case.
“We cannot comment on personnel issues in the media by law. We must respect the privacy of all employees – current, future and former,” said TaQuoya Kennedy, D209 spokeswoman, in an email.
Likewise, McGarry said she did not wish to comment on the matter because the suit is ongoing.
Although the cause for McGarry’s firing is not clear, her attorney responded to Collins-Hart’s April 30, 2010 note to McGarry, with his own sharp-tongued letter soon after, in which he said Collins-Hart treated McGarry like a “common criminal.” He wrote that, after McGarry received the April 30, 2010 letter, the district deactivated her pass card; her email accounts were suspended; she was ordered not to speak to district members; and McGarry’s supervisor, Dr. Cheryl Pruitt, “physically escorted her [McGarry] off the property and told her not to return.”
“Where do you think you get the authority to tell an employee that she cannot speak to anyone? Your conduct was outrageous!” wrote Glink, blasting Collins-Hart.