Former special education director sues School Board

Published 12:12 pm Wednesday, May 24, 2017

By Ryan Kushner

Staff writer

A former director of special education for Isle of Wight County schools filed a lawsuit against Superintended Dr. Jim Thornton and the School Board, alleging unfair treatment by administrators that pressured her to retire.

One allegation in the lawsuit states that Thornton boasted in a meeting of firing an African-American woman in his previous superintendent position, as she had shown resistance to moving to project-based learning in the schools.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Tammie Rollins-Hines, the plaintiff, is black, and claims to have expressed concerns about project-based learning for some students with special needs prior to the meeting.

Thornton wanted her demoted to a teaching position, according to the suit. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Rollins-Hines was employed by the division from 2004 to August 2016, when she retired. In the lawsuit, filed March 31, Rollins-Hines claims that several “malicious” acts, including a written reprimand, poor performance review and threat of demotion, pushed her into early retirement. She is seeking $250,000 in compensatory damages from the division, and a retraction of the performance review and reprimand from her record.

On April 25, counsel for the School Board and Thornton responded to the complaint with a demurrer, arguing that the lawsuit be dismissed, as the plaintiff had shown no cause of action to warrant relief from the division, nor any instances of the defendants directly violating the Code of Virginia, denying her due process or wrongful termination.

It further argues that the plaintiff did not have a “contractual relationship” with Thornton, but with Virginia State University.

A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 12 in Isle of Wight County Circuit Court.

Rollins-Hines claims in her complaint that the reprimand, performance review and threat of demotion she received while employed were directly related to her refusal to allocate leftover federal special education funds from her department’s budget for a new reading program, despite alleged requests from the division that she do so.

She also claims Thornton indirectly threatened her with termination after she questioned project-based learning’s effectiveness on some students with special needs.

The lawsuit alleges that during an April principals meeting, when a remark was made about a veteran teacher having problems with the move the project-based learning, Thornton replied: “That is crock. In my first year doing Project-Based Learning, I successfully documented and got rid of a 35-year veteran — an African-American woman — who was also related to the sheriff. So, it can be done.”

Following her refusal to reallocate federal funds, in March 2016, Rollins-Hines claims in her complaint that she was informed that the division would be freezing all her department’s funds, and that if she needed to make any expenditure, she must contact either Executive Director of Elementary Instruction Susan Goetz, or then Assistant Superintendent Heather Tuck, who is now Director of Career and Technical Education for the division.

The freeze on the department’s federal funds “caused daily problems and issues, as expenditures were on a daily basis,” reads the complaint. “It was a way of tying [Rollins-Hines’] hands and causing complaints from vendors, special education teachers, building principals…”

Rollins-Hines’ unfavorable performance review, signed by both Tuck and Goetz, details an instance in which she violated emailed instructions regarding the freeze.

According to the performance review, an email sent by Goetz gave notice of the freeze of the funds, and instructed Rollins-Hines to “please notify me and Heather [Tuck] before authorizing funds.”

Rollins-Hines, however, “did not go to either person to request equipment needed by the physical therapist … but instead told the therapist that funds were frozen,” the review states. “This was then reported to a Board member. Mrs. Rollins-Hines’ actions were in violation of the email.”

In the performance review, 25-28 points is exemplary, 20-24 equals proficient and 18-20 points equals developing/needs improvement. Rollins-Hines was given a 16, a score she claims is an anomaly in comparison to prior reviews, and submitted a rebuttal of the division’s findings.

Rollins-Hines goes on to claim in the complaint that she was unfairly blamed for a calculation error in a proposed budget that prompted a delayed vote at a School Board meeting last year, and arbitrarily reprimanded for correspondence with the Office of Civil Rights and the special education attorney without first notifying her direct superiors.

A letter signed by Thornton May 23, 2016, informs Rollins-Hines that he is recommending she be reassigned to a teaching position for the 2016-17 school year.

“You have not met my expectations with regard to team collaboration and leadership,” the letter states.

Rollins-Hines attempted to file grievance with the division following the letter, but was informed that such a procedure was only available to instructors, and she was a director, according to the lawsuit.

Rollins-Hines states in the complaint that medical issues prevented her from taking on the more physically demanding role of instructor in the division, and the poor performance review prevented her from finding employment elsewhere, leaving the retirement option at the age of 52.  {/mprestriction}