Teacher: School district retaliated

Teacher: School district retaliated

October 2nd, 2011 by Kevin Hardy in News

Falling Water Elementary School Principal Lea Ann Burk

Falling Water Elementary School Principal Lea Ann Burk

A former Hamilton County teacher is alleging that his school's female principal gave him a negative evaluation and let him go because he reported her for what he says was sexual harassment.

Mike Lewis, who worked at Brown International Academy for three years, claims the school district retaliated against him after he turned in Principal Lea Ann Burk, saying she had sexually harassed him. He claims she made advances toward him and made inappropriate comments.

His allegation was made in a formal complaint to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission earlier this year. Hamilton County Schools earlier found no evidence of harassment on Burk's part.

Burk said Lewis' claims are hurtful and baseless. She said the issue with Lewis was centered on performance and nothing else.

And, she said, a school principal doesn't determine whether teachers' contracts are renewed.

"Unfortunately, he's trying to make it more than it actually is," said the 30-year education veteran and principal at Falling Water Elementary School. "And I hate that, because nobody wins in this kind of situation."

Lewis provided the Chattanooga Times Free Press a copy of his complaint. Both he and school district officials say they've yet to receive any new information from EEOC since the complaint was filed in July.

Stacy Stewart, assistant superintendent for human resources, said the school system is waiting for official notification from EEOC before launching any investigation.

"We can't know what to investigate until we know what the concerns are," she said.

EEOC complaints are rare, but do occur from time to time -- about once a year, Stewart said.

"It's not something that happens every day," she said. "But in a district our size, it's not necessarily uncommon."

An EEOC official declined to comment on the case, saying such investigations are always private. The official said the status or outcome of the investigation would never be released publicly by EEOC.

Lewis claims that Burk issued negative evaluations following his complaint of sexual harassment, which he gave to the school system's central office last spring. After being what he called the principal's "golden child" and receiving positive evaluations in the two previous years, Lewis said Burk turned on him.

He said the change occurred after she learned of his relationship with another teacher to whom he's now engaged. He said Burk made inappropriate comments to him before she knew of his relationship with the teacher.

Lewis did receive satisfactory evaluations -- though not spotless -- during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, personnel records show.

"He works to ensure a team atmosphere and works hard with the goal being excellence for all students," Burk wrote in a March 2010 review. "He is willing to do whatever is necessary, it does not have to be part of the job description."

Still, Burk and other evaluators pointed out that Lewis should work on better planning instructional goals and using more assessments to gauge students' progress. Burk said administrators unsuccessfully tried to get Lewis to work with other teachers to better master teaching. Those recommendations appear on evaluations.

"We did try to support him in every way we could," Burk said.

Then in February 2011, Lewis received an unsatisfactory evaluation from Burk.

After observing Lewis' classroom, "it was evident from the way the lesson unfolded that very little thought had been given to the math lesson," Burk wrote on Feb. 2. Her observation notes said the teacher "does not exhibit an in-depth understanding of basic math concepts."

Last spring, Lewis contacted then-Superintendent Jim Scales and objected to the latest evaluation, saying it was biased and unfair. He said he received his negative evaluation the day after he met with Scales to report the principal for sexual harassment.

After having a human resources staffer investigate the matter and speak with individuals named in Lewis' complaint, Scales said officials were "unable to substantiate that any type of harassment occurred."

"No retaliatory action towards you will be tolerated because of your complaint or because of our investigation," Scales wrote in a Feb. 22 letter.

The letter said Lewis would be transferred at his request to East Brainerd Elementary School, effective the following day. A non-tenured teacher, Lewis was later informed that his contract hadn't been renewed.

Burk pointed out that Lewis' transfer happened while she was sick in the hospital last spring. She said she had no personal issues with Lewis, who she said generally worked well with peers.

She said the central office elected not to renew his contract; she only evaluated his performance.

"If there's a personal issue, it's his perception," Burk said. "I did my job, which was to evaluate him."

Though Scales said human resources investigated the claim last year, Burk said she had never heard of any harassment complaint until last week. She said she worries the accusations could threaten her credibility as a leader.

"A principal's reputation is everything," she said. "It was just very hurtful."

She has worked in Hamilton County since 1979, holding various roles, including elementary classroom teacher, consulting teacher, assistant principal and principal. She received positive reviews on the two principal's evaluations in her public personnel file. She has received several teaching awards, she said.

"I find Ms. Burk is a very professional principal," a central office evaluator wrote in March 2005, when she had been principal at Lakeside Academy for about two years. "She is new to the job but has a real and sincere desire to be masterful in her role. Her rapport with teachers, parents and students is very good."

Lewis worked in Meigs and Rhea counties for two years before coming to Brown Academy, records show. Before that, he said he was a firefighter and police officer in Cleveland, Tenn.

He had hoped the complaint against Burk would help him regain his job, he said. He was encouraged when Superintendent Rick Smith took the post over the summer -- he was hoping Smith could help reverse the decision. But Lewis said he's yet to hear back from Smith.

Smith said he's aware of the complaint, which the district will investigate.