SARASOTA — The parents of a second-grader evicted from a charter school last September are claiming the administration retaliated against their child because they made a public-records request for employee personnel records. They have also lodged a formal legal complaint against Island Village Montessori School in east Sarasota County for allegedly violating the state’s open-government laws.
On Sept. 2, the day after Jenn and Jeff Buck asked IVMS to release the employment history of new principal Cindy Hoffman, they were notified in an email from the president of the school’s board of directors that “you are no longer part of the IVMS community” and “your son will be permitted to join a class at his district school."
Sarasota attorney Andrea Mogensen, representing the Bucks’ efforts to seek informal mediation with IVMS, said she hasn’t handled many cases like this.
“It’s actually pretty unusual pertaining to any school,” she said. “I did a lot of research, and it’s difficult to find circumstances where the child was retaliated against for the First Amendment speech of the parents. Most First Amendment cases are with the child, where the school does not appreciate their clothing, how they wear their hair, or assembly issues.”
Mogensen said the IVMS attorney has not responded to the Bucks’ request for a meeting. Grapevine Communications, which handles publicity for the school, declined to comment to the Herald-Tribune.
After examining copies of email exchanges between the Bucks and various school sources, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office concluded IVMS had not properly notified parents of public meetings, or allowed them access to those meetings or records. It filed a probable cause affidavit of Sunshine Law violations — a misdemeanor under Florida law — against IVMS board president Sander Feldman on March 9.
“I have no comment,” Feldman told the Herald-Tribune on Monday.
The controversy began last year, when IMVS, under new principal Hoffman, changed its student dropoff policy at the beginning of the fall semester. Instead of allowing parents to walk their children to class, the new rules required parents to accompany their children no farther than the school entrance.
The Bucks’ son Cooper was entering his third year at IMVS. After discussing the new rules with other parents last August, the Bucks began making inquiries into the school’s finances and employee qualifications.
They made a request for personnel records on Sept. 1 and followed it up the next day with an 11:13 a.m. email citing the statutes relevant to their request. At 2:53 p.m., Feldman replied in an email stating Cooper was being dismissed because of their “intimidating, threatening and abrasive e-mails.”
“There’s nothing threatening in those emails at all,” said Jeff Buck, who belatedly acquired the documents he wanted. “It’s all public record and you can read it for yourself.”
Jeff and Jenn Buck aired their frustrations before the Sarasota School Board last month. They said they discovered the school “did not do due diligence” regarding employment background checks, and that their son was “kicked out of school without any due process.”
“There is limited authority we have — you have — as a board,” outgoing School Superintendent Lori White responded. “But you certainly do have a charter, which we have to see if proper procedures were followed in terms of, for example, dismissal procedures.”
More broadly, added attorney Mogensen, “A charter school does not get different or special treatment under the constitution.”
In a letter to the school's attorney, Mogensen said that the Bucks were entitled to the records they sought under Florida's public records laws.