Attorney of fired Bellefonte principal cites ‘difference of opinion’ with board

jvanderk@centredaily.comSeptember 14, 2013 

Elaine Cutler, former Bellefonte Elementary School principal, listens as the Bellefonte Area School Board discusses their reasons for firing her.

ERIC SMITH — Photo for the CDT

The attorney of the Bellefonte Elementary School principal fired this week by the school board said she’s disappointed in the nine-member board.

“The people in that district should be disappointed because they didn’t do their jobs,” said Amy Marshall, attorney for former principal Elaine Cutler.

Cutler, principal at the school since 1998, was suspended without pay at the end of June after receiving an unsatisfactory job review. She was told she could resign, retire or be fired after Superintendent Cheryl Potteiger listed 76 reasons Cutler should leave her position.

By Friday, Marshall was able to comment on the adjudication document, outlining the board’s decision-making process and conclusions for firing Cutler. Immediately following the board’s vote on Tuesday, she wasn’t aware of its reasoning.

“They focused on the whole issue of deadlines,” Marshall said. “We have a disagreement on the facts.”

The adjudication document cites evidence the board used to support 58 of the charges against Cutler.

The document doesn’t list the 18 charges that were dismissed, and the district denied a Right to Know request for the charging document, stating that it falls under the exemption of “written criticisms of an employee” and “information regarding discipline, demotion or discharge contained in a personnel file.”

Marshall said many of those other charges accused Cutler of unprofessional communication.

“When you can show an email that says, from the parent, ‘I respect you’ ... it’s really hard to say she’s having an unprofessional communication,” Marshall said.

Cutler chose a public due-hearing process, her right as a tenured employee. It took place on July 10, July 22 and Aug. 2. Marshall presented Cutler’s case on the third day, and Cutler herself testified.

Marshall said more board members should have attended. Reading from the 276-page transcript from the hearing’s third day, which the CDT also requested and was denied by the district, she noted members Chip Aikens, Jenna Moorehead, Becky Rock and Richard Steele attended.

She used that information to make the point that member Jeff Steiner did not attend, so did not hear Cutler’s testimony in person, but on Tuesday gave about 10 minutes worth of comments ahead of the vote.

“When we want to talk about falling down on the job, put it back on them,” she said.

Marshall said one of Steiner’s comments was the most offensive to Cutler.

He said board members are elected to ensure students are receiving the most quality education possible.

“The level of administrative duties that were not getting done in that building were such that there’s no way that the children in that building, over the last two years, received the kind of education that they should receive,” he said.

Marshall said that mischaracterized the Bellefonte Elementary faculty.

“Teachers teach,” she said. “That was upsetting.”

As for the disagreement of facts, Marshall addressed the majority of the charges used to support Cutler’s termination, which alleged Cutler’s failure to complete required observations of her teachers.

“We presented an exhibit during the course of the testimony, a document Ms. Cutler put together so she could track what she was supposed to do,” Marshall said. “Testimony was clear that the superintendent had seen the form and approved the form. When you look at that form, all those observations are completed.”

The adjudication mentions the form, a “summary sheet,” but goes on to say that Cutler didn’t complete her observations for the 2011-12 school year. It cites the third day’s hearing transcript, in which Cutler says she “ran out of time” to complete the written portions of the observations.

Marshall argued that, according to testimony from former curriculum director Cathy Brachbill, observations not completed signify a satisfactory staff member, and Cutler used the summary form to track her progress.

“So we have a difference of opinion on the facts,” Marshall said. “And I would say it’s a significant difference of opinion on the facts.”

Marshall has stated previously that she and Cutler will file an appeal to the state Department of Education. They have 30 days to do so.

In the meantime, the acting principal at Bellefonte Elementary is Karen Krisch, who previously worked as the middle school principal.

As for the process to put someone permanently in that position, Potteiger said Friday that she could not currently discuss those personnel issues.

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

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