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Joseph Burke
Joseph Burke

Investigation timeline

2011

July 1, 2011 — Joseph Burke sworn in as Lee County schools superintendent
July 27, 2011 – Deedara Hicks hired as director of secondary operations for Lee schools
Aug. 10, 2011 — Hicks appeared to be slurring her speech, talking loudly, crying and unsteady on her feet, according to employee statements in a Florida Department of Education report. Earlier that morning Hicks met Principal Charles Dailey for breakfast and stated she wasn’t feeling well.
December 2011 – Craig Baker, a coordinator in Lee’s Professional Standards and Equity department learned about the August incident from Director Ranice Monroe, who was also present on that day. Baker met with then-Human Resources Director Greg Adkins, who approved an investigation into the allegations.
Dec. 21, 2011 – Hicks receives a settlement negotiations letter from staff attorney Robert Dodig proposing employee discipline for alcohol substance abuse. Hicks says it’s the first time she’s notified about the investigation. She doesn’t sign the agreement.
2012

Early January – Baker begins collecting statements from possible witnesses to the August 2011 incident, but within a few days he is informed by Adkins that Burke has suspended the investigation.
Jan. 5, 2012 – A second settlement negotiations letter from Dodig is written removing most alcohol terminology; however it wasn’t given to Hicks, Burke says.
Jan. 31, 2012 – School board officials go against the advice of the board attorney and vote 3-2 not to investigate the allegations within the anonymous letters.
Aug. 20, 2012 – Baker reports the allegation to the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Professional Practices Services that Hicks reported to duty under influence of alcohol a year earlier. He retires four days later.
Sept. 4, 2012 – Burke contacts DOE’s PPS Investigator Randy Kosec, Jr., to state Baker was not authorized to release information about Hicks and requested the investigation be dismissed. Burke also contacts DOE Interim Commissioner Pam Stewart to request the investigation be dismissed.
2013

Feb. 13 – DOE’s PPS determines no further action is warranted into the Hicks’ investigation.
Feb. 25 – DOE’s Inspector General Mike Blackburn contacts board Chairwoman Mary Fischer to indicate his department would investigate allegations Burke suspended an active Lee County investigation into Hicks, transferred $1.6 million in grant monies without board approval and used grant money to fund top level administrators.
March 14 – Lee County school board responds to Inspector General Mike Blackburn stating the financial matters and Hicks’ investigation have been resolved by DOE.
March 15 – Kuckel sends a letter to the IG requesting a state investigation into public records violations, the Hicks’ investigation and culpability of school board members not enforcing policies. She also sends each of the board members a letter criticizing Burke’s management.

Inspector general update

The school board hired Punta Gorda attorney Michael McKinley to address the inspector general’s allegations. He sent a response from the district last week stating two financial matters had been “resolved by the results of the fiscal monitoring visit conducted by the Florida Department of Education” from April 16-19 2012.

He also cites completion of DOE’s investigation into the Hicks matter and provides letters from Burke stating why the he didn’t pursue the investigation.

“I spoke with Mr. (Mike) Blackburn (the inspector general) and depending on how these go in his office my hope and expectation is to hear back in one to two weeks,” McKinley said.

More

Lee County’s schools Superintendent Joseph Burke’s mishandling of an investigation into a top administrator has caused a climate of fear and intimidation and continues to distract employees nearly two years later.

That’s according to current and former employees, a former school board member and a sitting school board member.

“I have had several employees that have called me and approached me saying they feel threatened, they feel intimidated and that their work environment is a hostile environment,” said longtime school board member Jeanne Dozier. “Basically they feel they can’t speak out.”

The trouble started on Aug. 10, 2011, when Deedara Hicks, then director of secondary operations, appeared intoxicated and was unable to work for much of the day, according to witnesses. Hicks, who had only been working for the district two weeks, says it was related to an ongoing medical condition. Others believed she had been drinking, noting she was slurring her speech, unsteady on her feet and crying.

The issue heated up again on March 15, when former school board member Jane Kuckel sent a letter to the state education department’s inspector general asking for investigations into three major allegations: that Burke killed an active investigation into Hicks by the district’s Professional Standards department, that there may have been violations of the state’s public records law related to that investigation and that school board members may be violating state law by not investigating the matter.

That same day, she delivered a letter to each of the five school board members that criticized Burke’s management of the district, including mishandling money, running a budget based on pulling millions out of reserves and integrity issues such as his handling of the Hicks matter.

The state officially ended its investigation of Hicks in February, saying no further action was necessary. She wasn’t penalized, nor was she required to go through any programs.

The matter continues to be messy. As recently as last week, in a district response to an ongoing inspector general inquiry, Burke stated there had been no investigation of Hicks. That angers people like Kuckel and recently retired executive secretary Becky Demo, who along with others made a formal statement as part of the state investigation.

(Page 2 of 6)

They say Burke wants to have it both ways: he didn’t order regular procedures to be followed, then killed the investigation because those procedures weren’t followed immediately after the incident.

Procedures

Burke said he didn’t order those usual procedures because he never suspected intoxication from alcohol or drugs. He said he had seen the effects of her medical condition before and they could mimic some of the symptoms of having too much to drink.

During the investigation, about a dozen school district executives and board members sent letters of recommendation that said Hicks was professional and doing good work. Many said they had never seen Hicks inebriated.

A district executive met her for breakfast that morning and said Hicks mentioned she wasn’t feeling well but appeared to be fine and not under the influence. But later that morning, others reported seeing her drunk, seeing alcoholic drink containers in her purse and smelling of alcohol.

Demo, an executive secretary for Alberto Rodriguez, chief administrative officer at the time was one of several people trying to help her that day. They convinced Hicks to go home shortly before noon and Hicks left, but called 10 minutes later to say she was coming back.

They didn’t see her return to the office, but Demo spotted her car in the district’s parking lot. She and another executive secretary, Pam Bull, walked out to Hicks’ Lexus and found her slumped in the passenger seat, with windows up and car engine not running.

“I was really concerned and worried she could be dead out there,” Demo said. “Forty-five minutes in closed car in August in Florida! It doesn’t take a rocket scientist.”

Demo and Bull went immediately to Burke.

“He did go straight out there,” Demo said. “But then I was concerned when he came back in. I said: ‘You left her out there?’ And he said, ‘Well, I turned the air on.’”

Shortly afterward, Burke helped Hicks to her office. He said if he suspected Hicks was drunk, he would never have walked her back to her office.

(Page 3 of 6)

Burke asked Bull to get Hicks something to eat and to call Professional Standards and Equity Director Ranice Monroe, who was at a medical appointment but showed up at 3 p.m. Monroe drove Hicks home about an hour later at Burke’s instruction. Demo followed in Hicks’ car.

Actions

Demo believed Burke’s actions were a little unusual for the situation. “He was the superintendent, I was the secretary,” Demo said. “Professional Standards got involved and I figured that would be it.”

She said she was angry later that nothing happened to Hicks and yet she was given the cold shoulder by Burke, Hicks and others afterward.

“She should not have been given special treatment at all,” Demo said. “It’s his job to handle this. He gave her a pass. Do what you are supposed to do. It was not his job to cover this up.”

She was eventually moved to the board members’ offices and hung on for another year before retiring. Demo, 62, said she would have liked to stay a little longer but didn’t feel welcome.

Burke said he didn’t like several things about how the district handled the Hicks matter. He said the Professional Standards & Equity Department didn’t start investigating Hicks until early January 2012, five months after the incident.

Craig Baker, the investigator from the professional standards department, told the state he started collecting statements in early January 2012 but soon was told by then executive director of human resources Greg Adkins to stop the investigation.

In weekly department meetings Baker said he repeatedly brought up Hicks’ conduct that day should be reported to the state because it was a legally sufficient violation of the code of ethics and professional conduct for educators. Baker told the state investigators Adkins directed him not to report it. He said it appeared Burke was the one telling Adkins to let it drop.

He told the state it was unfair the investigation into Hicks could be suspended and treated differently from investigations of other employees and that the district could face liability because of the unfairness. Efforts to reach Baker and Adkins for comment were unsuccessful.

(Page 4 of 6)

Baker sent his findings to the state on Aug. 20, 2012, four days before he quit. That effectively opened the state investigation. On Sept. 6, Monroe wrote a short letter to the state education department saying she gave no authority to Baker to forward his findings.

Bull, Hicks’ executive secretary at the time, told investigators she saw Hicks unsteady, emotional and smelling of alcohol.

She also said Hicks did not report to work the week of Sept. 6, 2011, and seemed incoherent when she called Hicks. During the week of Dec. 6, Bull said she reached Hicks several times at an educational conference in Orlando and Hicks was slurring her words.

“All I can say is that my statement was complete, it was accurate and it was truthful,” Bull said last week. She declined further comment. She now works in the student assignment office in Cape Coral. Burke said the move was not a demotion, but a step higher in pay grade and with higher responsibility.

Monroe, head of the department charged with making sure all employees are treated fairly and meeting professional standards, didn’t order testing for drugs or alcohol, a normal procedure, although she said in her official statements some months later she suspected Hicks had been drinking. Among other things, she recalled seeing wine coolers or small bottles of wine in Hicks’ purse and Hicks’ daughter mentioning to her Hicks had problems with alcohol.

Monroe did not return phone calls for comment, but said in her statement she tried to help Hicks over a period of months after that incident but determined “she did not want help and was in denial.”

“I have also been harassed and threatened because of this situation,” Monroe wrote in the state’s investigative report.

Despite Monroe’s statements in DOE records of seeing and smelling alcohol on Hicks, Burke said at no point did Monroe bring those concerns to him. Monroe, as director of the department that would handle employee investigations, never tested Hicks for alcohol or another substance.

(Page 5 of 6)

“My belief is if Ms. Monroe felt this clearly was some kind of alcohol situation, she would have followed normal procedures associated with her job, that would be my assumption,” Burke said, noting his presence wouldn’t have influenced Monroe’s decision to do her job, because he left the room and Monroe made the decision to drive Hicks home.

The next morning Burke drove Hicks to lead a meeting.

“She was fine,” he said. “I think that she was prepared. She came in, did the meeting and seemed fine to me. She didn’t make any comment to me about (the day before). She wanted to be here for the principal’s meeting and did her job.”

In retrospect, Burke said he may have approached the situation differently.

“It might have been more prudent for me to maybe even drive Dr. Hicks to one of the local clinics that afternoon,” he said. “I had a pretty full meeting schedule that day and could have changed things around. I certainly was not going to ask any of the secretaries to do that. It didn’t seem appropriate to me, that’s one of the reasons I contacted Ranice Monroe.”

Dozier said she can’t figure out why Burke has repeatedly tried to stop the investigation.

“How could all these people be lying?” she said.

Burke said he called a state investigator and interim Education Commissioner Pamela Stewart to get the investigation into Hicks killed.

Burke said an official investigation was never launched by the school district. Nothing started until Hicks was presented with a settlement agreement Dec. 21, 2011, by the district’s attorney Robert Dodig.

“It’s a settlement agreement given to Dr. Hicks, without any data collection, without any evidentiary material, asking her to sign a document agreeing to say she’s an alcoholic,” Burke said.

A second agreement, removing the alcohol language was written up in January 2012, which neither Hicks nor Burke ever saw until this past week, he said.

“Statements were then collected,” Burke said of early January 2012. “I hear about the statements and basically say, wait a second. We’ve got some procedural issues there that we need to take a careful look at before we continue with this process.”

(Page 6 of 6)

“The question is ‘Are we treating all employees the same?’ And the answer is no,” Dozier said. “The procedural errors started right at the top with the superintendent.”

Kuckel and others say those who made statements against Hicks were demoted, transferred or held back and those who supported her were promoted.

Dozier said she’s brought that up with Burke several times and that it’s his duty to take action.

“No action is not acceptable, but that has been his way of handling everything,” she said.

School board member Mary Fischer said she’s also heard rumors of employees being afraid to speak up whenever they disagree or have a problem with administration.

“You hear a little bit of everything,” she said. “And I have heard some people have been extremely happy and are interested in moving forward and I think some find change more difficult. It’s not necessarily Dr. Burke’s doing. People afraid to speak their mind … we are definitely taking more of a hard look at that the more we hear it and are taking steps to ensure we value everybody’s input and opinions.”

Backlash

Harns Marsh Middle School Principal Eric McFee, who was working at the district headquarters at the time of the Hicks incident, told investigators he saw Hicks drunk that morning. About a month later he was moved out of headquarters and has since been denied promotion to high school principal openings multiple times.

“When he made that statement, they moved him out of central office. It’s like you’re in a bad dream that they are so obvious about it,” Kuckel said.

A week after the incident, McFee met with school board attorney Robert Dodig to say he was concerned about his job and the cold shoulder he was getting from Hicks and Burke. Later that day, according to the state report, Hicks called McFee into her office and asked him what he knew about that day. McFee said he saw her drunk at work. Hicks denied it and told him to stop talking about it, mentioning Burke would handle it if McFee did not stop talking about it.

“I told the truth as I saw it,” McFee told The News-Press last week. He referred further comment to his attorney, Christina Harris Schwinn.

“The investigation was released and his name was in the report, and he wanted legal counsel to advise him regarding his rights,” she said. “It’s not like he’s a member of a union that can help him walk through these things.”

Dozier said the district may have a hard time recruiting from the outside or getting educators in Lee to seek promotion.

“All of this could have been over with if Dr. Burke had come forward and said I made a mistake, but let’s get this right. We would have been able to move on,” Dozier said. “Unfortunately, this is a dark cloud that continues to hang over the district. Administration is being affected by this. Teachers are being affected by this. The community is being affected by this.”

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