Ousted Bellefonte Elementary principal sues district

A civil complaint was filed Tuesday in federal court against Bellefonte Area School District and former school board member Jeff Steiner by a school principal who was terminated last year.

Former Bellefonte Elementary School principal Elaine Cutler alleges in the complaint that in firing her, the school district discriminated against her based on her age and disability.

Cutler also seeks compensatory damages against Steiner for “defamatory comments” he made during a public board meeting last year, according to the complaint.

Cutler is suing for more than $100,000 to compensate for loss of wages and benefits and her inability to find other employment.

Cutler contended that the district violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and Pennsylvania Human Relations Act when the board voted to terminate her last September.

During her tenure as principal, Cutler, 59, of Bellefonte, said she suffered from neurological conditions including severe migraines and Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune rheumatic disease.

She also suffered a stroke in April 2009, which left “significant neurological issues,” the complaint said.

The complaint added that Cutler became a “constant target of criticism” by Superintendent Cheryl Potteiger that included the plaintiff’s ability to take appropriate sick leave to manage her medical conditions.

Bellefonte solicitor Scott Etter said the district stands behind its decision, but had no further comment.

The district has said Cutler was fired by Potteiger for failure to perform her duties, including not turning in a timely budget or comprehensive plan, not observing classrooms and evaluating teachers, and failure to conduct severe weather drills.

Carolyn Dumaresq, acting state secretary of education, rejected Cutler’s appeal in March.

In her appeal, Cutler alleged that the district did not satisfy procedural requirements for the public school code and that at least one school board member did not attend the hearing or review the transcripts of the proceeding before the board.

In September, Cutler, who had been in the job since 1998, was fired by a unanimous vote by the Bellefonte school board.

Cutler initially was suspended without pay in June 2013 after receiving an unsatisfactory job evaluation from Potteiger.

Karen Krisch was named principal of Bellefonte Elementary after Cutler’s exit.

Before her evaluation, Cutler was told she could resign, retire or be fired after Potteiger listed 76 reasons Cutler should leave her position.

Court documents show Cutler was terminated for dozens of counts 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.