Former Bellefonte Elementary principal loses appeal

Elaine Cutler, former Bellefonte Elementary School principal, listens as the Bellefonte Area school board discusses its reasons for firing her.
Elaine Cutler, former Bellefonte Elementary School principal, listens as the Bellefonte Area school board discusses its reasons for firing her. For the CDT

Former Bellefonte Elementary School principal Elaine Cutler lost her appeal March 4 that she was wrongfully fired.

Cutler was fired by Superintendent Cheryl Potteiger last year on several counts of failing to perform her duties, which included 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, made the decision to reject Cutler’s appeal.

The appeal stated that 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 nor reviewed the transcripts of the proceeding before the board.

In September, Cutler, in the job since 1998, was fired by a unanimous vote by the Bellefonte Area school board. Cutler initially was suspended without pay last June after receiving an unsatisfactory job evaluation from Potteiger.

“All district employees are evaluated,” said Scott Etter, the district’s solicitor. “If their work is found to be deficient, and depending upon the scope and extent of the deficiency, those deficiencies are addressed in a variety of manners, up to and including a formal performance improvement plan.”

Karen Krisch was named principal of Bellefonte Elementary in September.

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.

The document states that on June 11, 2012, Cutler sent Potteiger an email regarding her lack of teacher observations in which Cutler said “I did not get them all done. I am finishing the write-ups now. No excuses. I know I’m in trouble.”

“We seek to avoid being involved with the dismissal of any employee, but once we make the decision, that dismissal is the only viable option that remains and actually go forward with the dismissal,” Etter said. “We are pleased that an independent third party, in this case the acting secretary of education, determined that there were ample grounds to support the dismissal.”

Cutler and her attorney, Amy Marshall, appealed the decision within 30 days of the vote to let Cutler go.

According to Etter, the appeal was denied after Dumaresq “reviewed the record ... made her own findings of fact, determined the credibility of witnesses, the weight of their testimony and any inferences to be drawn therefrom.”

“These multiple failures on the part of appellant are more than sufficient to sustain the dismissal at issue,” Etter said of Dumaresq’s response.

Marshall said in an emailed statement that she is preparing an appeal in Commonwealth Court.

Potteiger had no further comment.