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D304 + a Former Principal = Too Many Lawsuits

When there are lawsuits, where are the adults when you really need 'em?

Call it therapist, referee or just playground monitor, but the mere thought of having me stepping in to that role one more time should terrify Genevans to the point they start to flee our fair city in droves.

But when you consider what’s going on between Geneva School District 304 and former principal , I think the term marriage counselor would be most appropriate. Let’s start at the beginning.

In July of 2008, Dr. Pennington was hired to take the helm of Heartland Elementary School. Though unable to ferret out any specific details, word on the street was she “wasn’t well received.”

So, in 2009, the district moved her to the main office, where she assumed the role of coordinator of special projects and resource procurement, a position supported by federal stimulus funds and only guaranteed for a year.

Again, I’m not privy to any particulars, but when the School Board chose not renew Pennington’s 2010 contract, our dysfunctional disaster officially commenced. Please get your scorecards ready!

The first volley came in the form of a District 304 lawsuit which appeared to be a preemptive strike. Despite multiple objections to her requests to record meetings, the district asserts Pennington did just that.

Though there are very specific exemptions, in Illinois, it is illegal to record a conversation without the consent of all parties involved.

The asks for an injunction to prevent Pennington from doing it again, to prohibit her from disclosing the contents of those discussions, and to force her to destroy the recordings she already made. District 304 is also seeking compensatory and punitive damages exceeding $100,000.

The reason I called this a “preemptive strike” is because I assumed the only way they could’ve known about the recordings is if Pennington had already used them as leverage in a potential lawsuit of her own.

Again, I want to be clear, this is nothing more than and educated guess on my part.

But lo and behold! Fast forward to April and Pennington, indeed, launched a legal counterstrike in the form of a complaint with the Illinois Human Rights Commission. That document asserts school administrators engaged in a two-year pattern of age and gender discrimination and generally did their best to make her life miserable.

So my preemptive strike theory looks pretty good. And you all say I’m one banana short of a bunch.

Pennington specifically claims the district paid less-experienced male elementary school principals more, she was assigned to an ignominious office rife with ant and mouse traps, and District 304 was so intent on her failure they refused to file her grant applications. Though she mentions no specific amount, the former principal wants lost wages, damages, legal fees and the retraction of any negative evaluations.

In turn, District 304 has asked the judge to dismiss the complaint based on technical grounds.

If you managed to get all that, then you’re doing far better than I am—and I just wrote it! Fortunately for us, the specifics don’t really matter. What does matter is we have a group of adults who have chosen to act just like the second-graders who are supposed to be in their care. Actually, I think the second-graders could’ve done better.

When the only people getting anything out of these kind of self-inflicted wounds are attorneys, it drives me nuts.

Sadly, if you believe Dr. Pennington, as the situation was obviously deteriorating, an early attempt at a compromise fell through. According to her complaint, the district offered her 40 grand to go away.

Now, I generally frown on paying people off because it sets a poor precedent for future negotiations. But, as my sainted mother used to say, “Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.”

Dr. Pennington: You should’ve taken the money and run. Like so many marriages, this one just didn’t work out. Let it go! I understand you feel that you’re the aggrieved party, but you can play the blame game till you’re blue in the face and the only person you’ll ever convince is you.

This mess can’t possibly help your future employment prospects nor will it do much for your frame of mind. Come back to the district in the spirit of a settlement and then move on.

Superintendent Mutchler and the School Board: At a time when property-tax-fatigued Genevans are calling for less spending, your willing participation in these conflagrations does nothing to dispel the notion you don’t quite comprehend what the term “fiscal responsibility” really means.

Educational tax dollars going to lawyers? It doesn’t pass the laugh test. A petulant tit-for-tat lawsuit can’t possibly make anyone look good, and I don’t care how unreasonable you think she is, take a deep breath and find a way out of this. We've see the District 304 “we’re a cut above” and bunker mentalities long enough to know there's some truth to both sides of this issue.

I’ll even go one better. For my normal and nominal six-pack-of-Bass-Ale fee, I’m willing to offer my mediation skills to end this. And I’m serious. Give me 30 minutes with Dr. Mutchler, the School Board president and Dr. Pennington and I promise I’ll resolve this situation to everyone’s satisfaction.

It’s pretty sad when I’m offering to be the only adult in the room.

Political PR Machine June 01, 2011 at 02:13 PM
While I agree that it would be better to have people work out disagreements, sometimes the differences require the court system. This is to protect the rights for all. I advise presuming each party innocent and alliw the ststem in place to work its way out. While it may appear costly, it would be much more costly if citizens had no legal course of actions to take. I do believe that in the end, our justice system us among the best in the world, as imperfect as it may be. It is too bad when matters require a line in the sand approach - what is needed is improved mediation participation from plaintif and defendent. Just my opinion.
Bob McQuillan June 01, 2011 at 05:50 PM
If only the world lived by your rules, life would be so much easier. Problem here is that there are two sides to the story and the public will never know the truth. We will only end up paying the bill. As of last month, the legal fees to the school district were already more than $8, 000 and climbing. Illinois is a right-to-work state, so an employer doesn't need a reason to let go of someone. If it is true that 40k was offered that would raise red flags as to why someone with only one year of employment history would be offered money "to go away". The "no comment because it is a personnel issue" can already be heard on 4th street.
Bob McQuillan February 02, 2012 at 04:33 AM
Here is what I know as fact. I FOIA'ed the legal bill about 9 months ago, and at that time the legal bill was over $38,000 and was not up to date. No one will discuss the background because, I believe it is still in the court system. All board discussions were done in executive session as it should be. I see the real problem as the taxpayers paying the legal fees and any settlement. I don't know if the district has some type of insurance but it will cost the us something. I would be shocked if the district did something illegal with the federal funds, that is just not the way they operate. There certainly was some type of problem but what it was/is will probably never come out in public. I would suggest if someone wants to know the status, they FOIA the information. The district, by state law, must responsd to a FOIA reponse, even if they don't provide any information. Instructions for filing a FOIA are on the district website at www.geneva304.org. It is easy to do. As to the superintendent's contract, all administrators work under 1 year contracts which is different than the teachers. The superintendent's contract is renewed every year for 1 year. Since he started with a long-term contract, it is extended every year for 1 extra year. In my opinion, that isn't right. After the initial contract expired, there should be 1 year contracts not multi-year deals. I believe he has a 4 or 5 year contract. The contract extension is discussed in executive session.
Ed February 02, 2012 at 11:51 PM
I understand that this is column but it is totally inappropriate. Sorry Jeff but the whole thing is filled with hearsay and rumor. It is nothing more than gossip and rumor mongering. It is in no way constructive. I agree with Bob on this one. These type of issues should be dealt with in executive session. I know we want transparency but we elect the school board to handle these sensitive issues. I give them the benefit of the doubt on these issues. As with many personnel issues it is always more complicated then it appears on the outside. I can almost guarantee the board and the legal team are working the issue the best they can. On the larger issue of the school board I am always at a loss to understand all of the complaining. Yes our taxes are high but when you look at the quality of the education and what Geneva has to offer I don't have a problem paying. Yes I want the taxes to be lower but having three children in the schools we couldn't be happier. The quality is there, period. it has been shown over and over that property values are absolutely link to the quality of education. In addition, I know one of the board members personally. She is an outstanding person and I have no idea why she serves. They don't get paid a dime, have to spend countless on homework and then endure public ridicule. If you wonder why we don't have more people at election time I think you'd have to be crazy to be on the school board.

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