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Ruling May Chill School Districts Efforts To Challenge Charter School Conversions

CBS4 Investigative Producer Jilda Unruh authored this report
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(Credit: Thinkstock)

(Credit: Thinkstock)

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MIAMI (CBSMiami) – A ruling against the Miami-Dade County Public School District was the first-ever ruling under Florida statutes, written specifically to prevent school districts from taking “unlawful reprisals” against employees who support charter school conversions.

According to a recommended order signed June 30, 2014, by Administrative Law Judge Edward T. Bauer, the nation’s fourth largest school district was found to have violated Florida law by doing just that.

A complaint filed against the district by three former employees at Neva King Cooper Educational Center (NKCEC); Principal, Dr. Alberto Fernandez, Assistant Principal Henny Cristobol and placement specialist Patricia Ramirez, stemmed from their involvement in the attempted conversion of the Miami-Dade public school to a charter public school. To date, no public school in Miami-Dade or Broward counties have converted to a charter school since the legislature passed a law in 2002 which allows such conversions.

According to the judge’s narrative in his ruling, it all began in late 2011. Due to the unique nature of the school which teaches individuals ages 3 to 22 who have profound mental and physical challenges, Fernandez and Cristobol thought a charter conversion would benefit the students and they began their research into the subject.

Judge Bauer wrote, “However, Dr. Fernandez and Mr. Cristobol feared (presciently, as it turns out) that the prospective conversion would be met with strong resistance from MDCPS.”

On February 2, 2012, Fernandez and Cristobol presented the charter conversion idea to the school’s EESAC committee for a vote. EESAC is comprised of faculty, parents and other members of the community. The vote was unanimous to initiate the conversion ballot process. According to the judge’s ruling, Fernandez immediately notified his boss of the prospective conversion. The judge wrote that the boss, “….warned Dr. Fernandez, quite ominously, that ‘repercussions'” would follow.

According to court documents, district administrators descended on the school the next day. One of those was a member of Superintendent Alberto Carvalho’s cabinet.

District staff “… informed Dr. Fernandez that she was not happy about the prospective conversion and ‘reminded’ him that he was still an MDCPS employee,” wrote the judge.

Judge Bauer’s ruling detailed how the school district immediately sent several district-level employees to the school on a full-time basis, “ostensibly to field questions from the faculty about the conversion.”

“It is hardly surprising, then, that a number of NKCEC’s faculty were intimidated,”  Bauer wrote, “,,,unease that was exacerbated by the fact that the pair behaved more like sentries than members of high-level management whose purpose was to field inquiries.”

A faculty meeting on February 7, 2012 was controlled by district staff as opposed to Dr. Fernandez “(the staff members) announced to the faculty that a conversion was ‘not a good idea’,” wrote the judge.

Bauer then quoted Mr. Richard Massa, a teacher with more than 30 years of experience, who “credibly and aptly summed up the meeting as a ‘Pearl-Harbor like” bombardment of the negatives’.”

Massa is quoted in the ruling as saying, “It was like a blitzkrieg.”

Although Florida rules obligate the principal of the school to conduct the balloting of any conversion vote, Dr. Fernandez, lacking complete financial information from the district, requested a postponement of the vote.

But he was ordered in a memo by district staff to proceed “as originally scheduled.”

Bauer wrote, “Also noteworthy was that the memorandum represented a blatant usurpation of Dr. Fernandez’ control over the voting.”

On April 18, 2012, district staff filed official complaints against Dr. Fernandez and Mr. Cristobol alleging, among other things, that they’d “used their position of authority to intimidate and coerce staff to support and influence the outcome of the vote for the proposed charter school conversion.”

The complaints led to their removal from the school pending the outcome of an investigation.

District staff filed a complaint against Ms. Ramirez on May 4th, alleging she “used site resources and time to conduct non-school related activities.”

Dr. Fernandez, who had spent 14 years at the helm of Neva King Cooper, was reassigned by the district to Stores and Mail Distribution. His duties there included sorting and packaging crayons, organizing car keys, packaging small mops and sorting mail.

“Menial chores unbefitting a professional of his qualifications,” wrote Bauer.

Henny Cristobol, who’d been the Assistant Principal for six years at NKCEC and holds a Master’s degree in educational leadership, was reassigned to the district’s Dept. of Transportation Vehicle Maintenance. There he scanned documents and inventoried auto parts.

Patricia Ramirez, who holds a Master’s degree in early childhood education, was reassigned to the district’s federal and state compliance office.

There “Ms. Ramirez spent the entirety of her first week removing staples from seemingly endless piles of documents,” wrote Bauer.

On July 12th, 2012, Fernandez, Cristobol and Perez filed a complaint with the Florida Department of Education (DOE), which alleged that MDCPS had committed unlawful acts of reprisal.

In June of 2013, the DOE found “reasonable grounds” to support Fernandez, Cristobol’s and Ramirez’s “charges of reprisals.”

Last week, Bauer also found that Miami-Dade County Public School District had violated state law and committed unlawful reprisal against the three educators.

“The undersigned,” wrote Bauer “has expressly discredited the testimony of MDCPS’ witnesses concerning its reasons for the transfers.”

Although Dr. Fernandez and Mr. Cristobol had requested reinstatement to their former positions at Neva King Cooper Education Center, the judge did not grant them that request. Bauer wrote that “each Petitioner presently occupies an assignment that is equivalent, both in terms of compensation and responsibility, to his previous position at NKCEC.”

He also ordered the district pay all attorney fees and compensate Dr. Fernandez more than $10,000 in missed bonuses.

Robin Gibson, the lawyer for Fernandez, Cristobol, and Ramirez, told CBSMiami.com “I think the judge accurately characterized the circumstance and there was plenty of evidence at trial to justify the conclusion he accurately arrived at.”

The Miami-Dade County Public School district issued this statement:

“While we respect the Judge’s decision in this case, we disagree with the characterization of the school district’s response and of the actions of school district personnel to the aborted conversion of Neva King Cooper Education Center into a charter school.  It should be pointed out that the request to seek the conversion of the school was voluntarily rescinded.   It should also be noted that the majority of the Petitioners’ requested relief was denied by the Judge.  The District takes all these matters seriously and is reviewing the Judge’s decision and findings and will provide an appropriate response in this administrative proceeding.”
-Miami-Dade County Public Schools

After the Department of Education’s June 2013 finding of “reasonable cause” that the reassignments were retaliatory, the district removed Dr. Fernandez from his job packaging crayons and appointed him ESE Principal of Instruction system wide, a title he still holds.

Henny Cristobol was transferred to TERRA Environmental Research Institute as an assistant principal.

Terra, wrote Judge Bauer, “is one of MDCPS’ premiere high school magnet programs and an assignment comparable to his former position at NKCEC in terms of responsibility, salary, and benefits.”

Ramirez is no longer removing staples from documents. She was relocated to one of the district’s regional offices. The district, wrote Judge Bauer, “restored her to a placement specialist position. By all accounts, this new assignment, which Ms. Ramirez continues to hold (and wishes to retain), involves responsibilities and duties comparable to those of her former position.”

The Florida Department of Education has until July 15th to uphold or dismiss Judge Bauer’s ruling. All parties also have until that date to challenge Bauer’s findings before the DOE.

Click here to view the recommended order.

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