Lee County school board members have started the process of changing the policy that led to a state investigation of their top administrator.
During Tuesday’s school board meeting, the board voted 3-2, with board members Jeanne Dozier and Cathleen Morgan dissenting, to begin the process of altering Policy 5.29.
That policy relates to complaints regarding employees within the district. In particular, board Chairwoman Mary Fischer said she wanted to alter Section 3 of the policy that states “a complaint against an employee should be in writing stating the basis for the complaint, names of the persons involved, dates of the incident(s) and names of witnesses.”
“But it doesn’t require the complainants to identify themselves,” said Fischer. “So it makes it very difficult for us to launch any true investigation or open lines of communication say with mediation or a face-to-face meeting to resolve issues.”
Fischer proposed requiring identity and contact information for people filing a complaint with the district.
But without anonymity, employees may fear stepping forward to report abuses or problems within the district.
“I’m kind of riding the fence on this ... we have been inundated lately with a lot of anonymous letters. In fact an anonymous letter just came in about me and I would say investigate, because I’m an open book,” said Dozier, during Tuesday’s meeting. “If you’re not willing to be investigated you’ve got something to hide. But people who give us these anonymous letters usually there is a reason they don’t put their name on there. There’s a reason they don’t put their contact information, and it’s because they’re afraid of retribution.”
Dozier said she was against arbitrarily saying that without a complainant’s contact information and name the board wouldn’t investigate a complaint, especially if that complaint centers around the misuse of funds or abuse.
In the last two years board members and the media, including The News-Press, have received anonymous letters, or letters from untraceable writers, lodging accusations and complaints against the administration or other board members.
Those accusations have ranged from personal indiscretions to potential open meetings and Sunshine Law violations.
It was two anonymous letters in January 2012 to the school board that planted the seeds for the state department of education’s inspector general office to investigate Superintendent Joseph Burke’s decision to close an investigation into administrator Deedara Hicks. In February, DOE ruled that no further action by that office was warranted in the Hicks case, however the inspector general is investigating.
Monday, Burke officially announced his decision to retire in June.
Fischer, a certified mediator, said she doesn’t see why altering the policy would cause issues for potential whistle-blowers.
“This goes back to before I was on the board and before this administration was here,” she said. “Some people’s careers and health have been ruined by anonymous complaints that may or may not have any basis.”
Fischer said she’s also made suggestions for other sections of the policy to ask for arbitration or mediation during the grievance process, as a way to protect potential whistleblowers.
Board member Tom Scott said the board’s attorney can determine the language and exceptions to the change to account for times where anonymity is needed, but he applauded the proposal.
“We have been overwhelmed with anonymous letters chasing everybody from pillar to post and taking our eye off the ball,” said Scott. “... If people don’t like things they’ve got to express themselves clearly to the people who can help them out or explain to them why it’s got to be different. Hiding behind an anonymous letter that is hypercritical, makes accusations about people ... I don’t care what you say, it’s not right. Were there germs of truth in some of that? Maybe yes, maybe no. But we don’t know how to get to the bottom of it because nobody wants to identify themselves and show the proof.”
For the policy change to become official the board must hold a workshop and a public hearing. The proposal would require a super-majority, or four votes, to pass.
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