Suspended Bellefonte principal tries to keep job through due-process hearing

The principal at Bellefonte Elementary School, suspended without pay last month after she received an unsatisfactory job evaluation, has opted for a due-process hearing in the hope of saving her job.

Elaine Cutler, principal at the school since 1998, was told in May she had the choice of resigning, retiring or being fired after Superintendent Cheryl Potteiger’s review blasted Cutler as someone who failed to meet deadlines, didn’t follow district protocols and did not communicate well with others in the district. The details of the review, normally confidential because they pertain to personnel matters, were revealed on Monday during testimony on what was the second day of the public dismissal hearing, which is available to tenured school employees.

Potteiger’s decision to force out Cutler is based on a list of 76 reasons, which were the source of the testimony on Monday during questioning by Cutler’s lawyer, Amy Marshall. The Centre Daily Times filed an open-records request for the list Monday morning, but the Bellefonte Area School District did not respond by the end of the day and solicitor Scott Etter said it is not a public document.

The testimony was largely one-sided against Cutler, as Potteiger painted a picture of a principal who shirked her responsibilities, who didn’t follow orders such as observing teachers or filling out teacher evaluations that are required by the state, and who ultimately didn’t deserve to stay in her job. But Cutler’s lawyer said she plans to contextualize the accusations against her client in the hope of convincing the school board, whose members will decide whether or not to keep the principal.

Marshall will make her opening statements to defend Cutler when the public hearing resumes at 8 a.m. Aug. 2 in the library of the Bellefonte Area High School.

The first session was July 10 and included a special lawyer for the administration, Orris Knepp, asking Potteiger questions in support of her decision. The hearing was not well publicized and was poorly attended, but Monday’s session saw a crowd of supporters — teachers, retirees, local residents — some of whom wore red, the school district’s primary color.

Cutler, with her back to the crowd, faced Potteiger, who sat only a few feet away as she rattled off reason after reason for her decision to fire Cutler. Potteiger said Cutler didn’t make progress administrators wanted to see after putting her on an administrative improvement plan.

For instance, Potteiger testified that Cutler didn’t complete state-required evaluations of her teachers by the last day of school, June 12. Potteiger said Cutler promised to finish them within the next two weeks, but only had one done. As a result, Cutler was suspended without pay and will remain so until the resolution of this process.

Potteiger said Cutler did not do enough observations of the teachers at her school according to the deadlines she was given by the superintendent. And Potteiger said Cutler was late submitting her building budget to the district’s business manager for the development of the districtwide budget for 2013-2014.

“I think deadlines, when they are set, should be met,” Potteiger told Cutler’s lawyer.

Potteiger said Cutler didn’t follow district protocol when a long-term substitute found tobacco in the classroom where she’d taken over for a teacher on leave. Tobacco is banned on school property.

Potteiger said the substitute teacher notified Cutler, but Cutler never reported higher even though the teacher in whose classroom the tobacco was found had been warned about it on school property. Potteiger said she found out about it after a complaint came to her through the union.

In addition, Potteiger said she had to step in because Cutler hadn’t approved a field trip request that would need ultimate approval by the board. The trip needed to be approved by the board that night and the trip was the next day, the superintendent said.

“We don’t remind principals to do their jobs,” Potteiger told Cutler’s lawyer, who asked if the delay could have been due to an oversight. “If it was an oversight, it was for not doing what she needed to do.”

Assistant Superintendent Michelle Saylor testified that Cutler wasn’t communicating well with the teachers in her building, and they felt frustrated. Saylor she became frustrated with what she saw as a lack of progress in the improvement plan.

“It was the same thing over and over and over again,” Saylor said. “I wasn’t sure Ms. Cutler was putting in the effort to follow through on the processes.”

Marshall asked Saylor if she ever witnessed tense or adversarial exchanges between Potteiger and Cutler. Saylor said Cutler was always “patient” and “calm,” but there was one instance in which she said Cutler didn’t want help from Potteiger.

“I really felt that Dr. Potteiger had really set out to help Elaine be successful,” Saylor said. “I was a little bit stunned.”

Some in the crowd came out to watch the process play out. Others came to show support for Cutler, saying they think she was targeted.

“That could be anybody in Elaine’s shoes,” said Trish Weidemann, of Bellefonte, who knows Cutler through a teacher. “Far too often, someone is dismissed from a job because of personalities, and that is not right.”