A top-ranking Lee County school official broke her silence Friday and denied allegations that she was under the influence of alcohol while on the job.
Deedara Hicks, the district’s executive director of south zone operations, told The News-Press those allegations are false and that Superintendent Joseph Burke did not violate policy when he closed an investigation into the matter.
On Aug. 10, 2011, employees reported seeing Hicks slurring her speech, talking loudly and crying. She seemed unsteady on her feet, according to statements in a Florida Department of Education report.
At one point she went out to her car to go home, but school workers found her later slumped down in the passenger seat with the windows up and the air conditioning not on. They contacted Burke, who turned on the air conditioning in the car and later helped Hicks back to the district offices, according to the report.
Was Hicks under the influence of alcohol in August 2011? “No,” she said.
“Dr. Burke did the right thing,” Hicks said. “He knew my prior medical history. He knew I had no (medical) benefits. He followed procedures. He was unaware (an investigation) was happening with that and neither did I.”
The Florida Department of Education investigated the allegations against Hicks and found no further action was necessary. In a statement, Hicks said that her character has been inaccurately portrayed due to major medical issues.
During that day in August, Hicks continued to appear distressed or incoherent. Eventually Hicks was driven home by Ranice Monroe, the district’s director of professional standards and equity. Monroe was unavailable for comment Friday afternoon.
“In a nutshell I had been here for two weeks only and had some recent medical issues,” said Hicks, adding that complications due to a medical surgery she had were perceived by some people to be the same symptoms of being under the influence of alcohol. “That’s what happened that day.”
“Based on what happened to me, she took me home and yes, she handled her job well,” said Hicks. “But based on what they’re alleging, her job would have been to do certain actions that were not done.”
Burke said he didn’t order regular procedures started on Hicks at the time because he never suspected she was impaired by alcohol or drugs, according to the state report. He was unavailable for comment Friday evening.
“Did the superintendent act appropriately? Should he have done something at the time?” said board member Jeanne Dozier. “We need to divert the attention to if he acted appropriated. Did he act within his realm of superintendent?”
Both Dozier and former board member Jane Kuckel say “no”.
“He didn’t do his due diligence to her to help clear that up, because the original suspicion was around alcohol,” Kuckel said.
Kuckel and Dozier also say that they were not previously informed of Hicks’ medical conditions and that the information wasn’t included in her personnel file.
If there are medical issues that may interfere with work, the district has to document it and put it in a personnel file, Kuckel said, adding that doctors write notes and statements to employers about medical conditions frequently.
“We’re past Deedara, that’s just a name. Let’s say it’s John Smith. The focus is not on John Smith or Deedara Hicks,” Dozier said. “Did he act appropriately? Did he carry out his duties? Did he violate board policy and state statute? I feel sorry for Deedara, what’s happening right now.”
During Tuesday’s school board meeting, Burke said that there were a number of procedural issues that were not followed based on district policy, which led to him suspending the district’s investigation into Hicks’ action and requesting that DOE end its investigation.
A former coordinator in the district’s Professional Practices and Equity department, Craig Baker, was asked to investigate the events by Monroe, the department’s director, and given the go ahead by Greg Adkins, the former director of human resources, a few days before the start of Winter Break in 2011.
Baker was unavailable for comment.
Hicks said she didn’t learn of an investigation or know of any problems until she received a settlement agreement from one of the district’s attorneys dated Dec. 21, 2011.
“When I got that letter, I was in shock,” she said, adding that she brought in her attorneys, refused to sign the agreement and thought the issue was done. However, Baker was collecting statements from employees that January.
In August 2012, Baker told the state the he was told to stop the investigation by Adkins at the request of Burke.
Burke said he felt Hicks should not be disciplined for a health issue and he thought the district’s investigation into Hicks behavior was against school policy because it was not started immediately after the incident.
“Consequently I took a position I thought was fair and right in protecting the interest of the school district,” Burke said.
He also said he thought the investigation was “intended to embarrass Hicks.”
Hicks said Burke had been aware of her medical situation from their time working together in Orange County Schools in 2009.
During the 2011-12 school year, Hicks received the highest performance ratings on her evaluation and Burke promoted her to executive director on July 1, 2012. On Oct. 4, Burke sent a letter to the state Office of Professional Practices asking it to suspend its investigation into Hicks.
But most recently a letter from a state education official addresses Hicks’ alleged “insubordination”.
Linda Champion, a deputy commissioner with the Florida Department of Education, wrote of major concerns she had about Hicks’ performance, including excessive absences without authorization and falsifying time sheets “claiming to have worked hours when in fact she was absent.”
“Dr. Hicks has been insubordinate by her failure to obey reasonable orders given to her by her supervisor,” Champion wrote in the April 5, 2011, to an official of Florida Atlantic University, where Hicks was based as part of a grant agreement.
Hicks failed to give her supervisor access to her calendar when she requested it and failed to attend 10 of 21 instructional review conferences in a 2 1/2 month period in fall 2010, the letter said. The letter said the department was considering making a request to fire Hicks as a regional executive director.
Hicks said she resigned from the position in May 2011 due to health reasons and never saw the letter from Champion until local media outlets recently showed it to her.
During her time working as a regional director, Hicks said she was never given a formal reprimand or any notice about poor performance.
“I haven’t gotten into this enough to start refuting, but I do know I never received it,” she said.
Florida’s Office of Inspector General is looking into allegations that Burke mishandled the Hicks investigation and mismanaged district money.
Hicks said she just wants to move on from the investigations and continue her work in the district.
“We took everything to show we’ve been investigated, by people higher up then us, by (DOE), and they didn’t go any further and they had all the information,” Hicks said. “I don’t expect it to go further. We would like to continue focusing on the children in Lee County schools.”