Bellefonte Elementary principal fired by unanimous school board vote

jvanderk@centredaily.comSeptember 11, 2013 

— Elaine Cutler, principal at Bellefonte Elementary School since 1998, was fired with a unanimous vote of the nine-member school board Tuesday night.

Cutler sat in the back of the audience with her attorney, Amy Marshall. The vote came near the end of the approximately 90-minute meeting. As a dozen or so supporters filed out afterward, one man shouted to the board: “I hope you’re all proud.”

Marshall said afterward Cutler will appeal the decision to the state Department of Education. She must do so within 30 days and Marshall said she doesn’t yet know the timeline for that process.

Cutler received applause when she approached supporters after the meeting. She declined comment to the media.

Cutler was suspended without pay at the end of June when she received an unsatisfactory job evaluation. Before that, she was told she could resign, retire or be fired after Superintendent Cheryl Potteiger listed 76 reasons Cutler should leave her position.

In the adjudication document, which outlines the board’s decision-making process and was provided to the CDT through a Right to Know request, it states that evidence supported 58 of the charges and that charges of incompetence, persistent negligence in performance of duties, willful neglect of duties, and persistent and willful violation of or failure to comply with state school laws are sustained.

The document does not list the other 18 charges.

Two board members offered comments ahead of the vote. Jeff Steiner first received applause from the crowd when he used a story about his daughter to illustrate the way people “get a place in your heart” when they are kind to children.

“Whatever failings Elaine Cutler may have, she’s a gentle and loving person,” Steiner said.

Steiner went on to say that he wanted to be “the good guy” and vote against termination but that, when discussion began of charges five through 30, related to Cutler’s alleged failure to complete required observations of teachers, his attitude changed.

“There wasn’t a choice at hand,” he said. “There was a course of action to be taken.”

And that action, he said, was to follow Potteiger’s lead.

Marshall said afterward she objected to Steiner’s description of charges in terms of “misdemeanors” and “class A felonies,” saying those are terms from the criminal system and did not match the proceedings related to Cutler.

Board member Hope Boylston, a retired teacher, also offered comments, seemingly also on the issue of teacher evaluation.

“What made me a teacher was working with people constantly who could evaluate my work, who watched me work with children and came back to me with feedback,” she said. “This is how good teachers become great teachers.”

Tuesday’s vote was the result of a three-day due-process hearing, held July 10, July 22 and Aug. 2. Cutler chose to make it public, as was her right as a tenured employee.

The first session had Orris Knepp, lawyer for the administration, questioning Potteiger on her decision to fire Cutler. The second included testimony on Potteiger’s reasons for wanting to do so, including that she didn’t meet deadlines, follow district protocols or effectively communicate with others. The third included testimony supporting Cutler’s actions at the school.

After the vote, which was to adopt the adjudication and terminate Cutler, Marshall said she didn’t know the board’s reasoning, as it was not explained publicly.

“I’m not surprised,” she said of the vote, however.

Though the adjudication states that all board members either attended the three days of Cutler’s hearing or read the transcripts, Marshall said it was disappointing there wasn’t more member attendance.

“They, in my mind, were not as engaged in the process as they should’ve been,” she said.

Marshall said she doesn’t know Cutler’s plans for the future, but said that, based on what board members said during the meeting, “I don’t think it would be a healthy work environment.”

The other charges outlined in the adjudication document are as follows and include references to the hearing transcripts, which the district has not released to the public.

•  Charge 31 — unsatisfactory for the 2011-2012 school year.

•  Charge 32 — failure to report inappropriate items found in classrooms. Cutler allegedly did not report the finding of tobacco products in a classroom to Potteiger.

•  Charges 40-41 — failure to submit plan and be prepared for building level action plan. Cutler allegedly submitted late her school’s contribution to the district’s five-year plan.

•  Charges 43-44 — failure to submit budget in a timely manner and/or request an extension.

•  Charge 45 — failure to submit a student accident report in a timely manner. Cutler allegedly took three months to submit a report after a driver ran over a student’s foot.

•  Charges 49-50 — failure to conduct a severe weather drill and submit a report.

•  Charges 54-63 — failure to review and approve or deny field trip requests. Cutler allegedly did not take action on multiple field trip requests until very shortly before or after the trips were scheduled to occur.

•  Charges 64-70 — failure to complete teacher observations and/or to do so in a timely manner.

•  Charges 71 and 73 — failure to submit summer hour work selection by the established deadline.

•  Charge 72 — unsatisfactory rating for the 2012-2013 school year.

•  Charges 74-76 — failure to complete and/or submit completed teacher evaluations.

Jessica VanderKolk can be reached at 235-3910. Follow her on Twitter @jVanReporter.

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