Miami-Dade County

Judge sides with Miami-Dade principals in Florida’s first charter conversion retaliation case

Senior officials with the Miami-Dade school district tried to stonewall a push to convert a school for the severely disabled into a charter school and then improperly punished the employees behind the movement, an administrative law judge ruled this week.

Principal Alberto Fernandez and Assistant Principal Henny Cristobal were reassigned to jobs packaging crayons in a mail room and scanning documents in a vehicle maintenance office after they proposed turning Neva King Cooper Educational Center into a charter school. They say district officials and members of the superintendent’s cabinet came to the school to intimidate parents and teachers, withheld information necessary to stage a required vote on the conversion and then conducted a witch hunt.

School Board investigators deny the allegations and a district spokeswoman on Thursday objected to the judge’s characterization of the behavior by district officials. In interviews, officials said Fernandez and Cristobal were transferred amid an investigation that found evidence they had “coerced” staff into voting in favor of the charter conversion and improperly worked on the initiative while on the school board’s dime.

But Judge Edward Bauer on June 30 dismissed most of the district’s claims and sided with the principals and a third Neva King Cooper employee. He recommended that the Florida Department of Education order the district to pay attorney fees and $10,000 in lost bonuses to Fernandez. The state has 15 days to make a decision.

“I think the court accurately characterized what occurred,” said Robin Gibson, attorney for the reassigned employees.

The case is the first of its kind in Florida, where laws allow votes by parents and faculty to change public schools into charters, which receive public funding but are governed by an independent board. Parents and teachers of Wingate Oaks, for instance, are hoping to be the first to successfully convert a school in Miami-Dade or Broward counties.

Under Florida law, school district officials can’t punish their employees for taking part in the process. But that’s what Fernandez and Cristobal say happened to them after they raised the possibility that Neva King Cooper’s students could benefit if the school was converted to a charter.

According to Bauer’s ruling:

The duo brought in Gibson in late 2011 to help oversee the process, but waited to tell district officials about what they were doing because they feared reprisal. After a school leadership committee voted to pursue a conversion several months later, Fernandez informed a supervisor, and by the next day senior officials began visiting the school.

One administrator, then-Chief Academic Officer Milagros Fornell, told Fernandez and Cristobal that district staff would be stationed at the school in the coming weeks to answer questions about the conversion. Instead, the judge said two officials stationed at the school “behaved more like sentries,” and one teacher said the district’s administration created “an atmosphere of very deep fear.”

When parents held a meeting to get details on what a conversion would mean, Bauer wrote that district staff introduced them to the former operator of a failed charter school. When school faculty met, one veteran teacher said a group of more than a dozen district officials bombarded teachers with negative — and in some cases incorrect — information.

“It was like Pearl Harbor. It was a blitzkrieg,” said Richard Massa.

The vote was ultimately canned after Fernandez said district officials withheld key financial information and then denied a request to delay the decision. Just days later, Fornell filed complaints against Fernandez and Cristobal saying they’d tried to coerce the school’s staff into supporting a charter school conversion and abused school time in their endeavor.

The adminstrators were removed from the school to positions in the mail room and a vehicle maintenance facility. A third employee, Patricia Ramirez, was also accused of working on the conversion during school hours and transferred to an office where for the first week she said she removed staples from documents that needed scanning.

Fornell, who is now retired and could not be reached for comment, took over as the school’s acting administrator, according to the judge.

The three transferred employees sought help from the Florida Department of Education. In April 2013, then-Education Commissioner Tony Bennett ruled for the first time in Florida’s history that there was probable cause a district had retaliated against its employees for pursuing a charter school conversion.

Bennett referred the case to the Department of Administrative Hearings, which concluded with Bauer ruling that the school district had indeed retaliated against its employees.

In a statement, district spokeswoman Denise Landman said that “while we respect the judge’s decision in this case, we disagree with the characterization of the school district’s response and of the actions of school district personnel to the aborted conversion of Neva King Cooper Education Center into a charter school.”

She noted that the judge denied a request that Fernandez and Cristobal be placed back at Neva King Cooper, saying the district has since placed them in new, equivalent positions outside the mail room and vehicle maintenance office. She said the judge also denied Cristobal and Ramirez back-pay.