The board has hired a law firm to investigate a School District staff member's whistleblower complaint against the superintendent. Maier filed a complaint with the State Attorney's Office, alleging that the board violated Florida's Sunshine Law.
The School Board has launched an investigation of Superintendent of Schools Heidi Maier after a whistleblower complaint was filed last month.
And just a few days after that complaint was lodged, Maier filed a complaint of her own with State Attorney Brad King, accusing the board members of violating Florida's Sunshine Law.
The whistleblower complaint was filed by Terrance “Chris” Smith, a School District employee whose primary duty was as an emergency management coordinator.
Smith sent Maier an email on Aug. 15 stating he was overwhelmed with all of his increasing job responsibilities. Smith’s email stated that he has been assigned too many other duties, including risk management investigator, law enforcement coordinator and school safety officer.
“I have way too many responsibilities and no one seems to care,” Smith wrote to Maier. “We have sworn officers out in the field with zero policies and procedures in place to govern their actions; we have not even qualified with our duty weapons.”
Smith also noted the district is “not currently in CIS compliance, specifically the protection and security of law enforcement information.”
“If anything happens you are responsible,” Smith wrote. “Your micromanaging and tyrant behavior has hindered us in every way possible. We have done everything to bring these concerns to your attention only to be diverted by your political agendas. Your micromanaging and tyrant behavior is demeaning and unprofessional. You are ruining the organization and running off good people.”
Smith continued, stating he will not “live in fear of a tyrant.”
“I’d rather lose my home and live on the streets than continue to work under these conditions,” Smith wrote. “Respectfully consider this my resignation.”
The allegations made in that email came to the attention of School Board Attorney Paul Gibbs, though it's unclear how. Gibbs, at the request of the board, initiated a formal investigation and the board hired an Orlando law firm, Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell, P.A., to serve as an independent reviewer of the claims.
That law firm has investigators traveling throughout the School District interviewing employees about the accusations against Maier, Gibbs said. Other than that, Gibbs said he cannot comment about the ongoing investigation.
School Board Chairwoman Kelly King said she is limited to what she can say. King said that investigators will look at specific allegations and “can branch off if other accusations arise.”
Board members Beth McCall, Nancy Thrower, Nancy Stacy and Vice Chairman Eric Cummings said they could not discuss any details of the complaints.
Once the investigation is complete, the School Board will receive a comprehensive report that will be made public.
Although Smith wrote in his email that he was resigning, officials contacted him and convinced him to remain with the district, since a whistleblower’s job is protected by law.
Maier’s local attorney, Henry Ferro, said his client was contacted via letter by Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell, P.A., and informed that she was under investigation. The letter gave detailed descriptions of what were described as “tyrant”-like behavior by Maier toward the district’s school security team during closed-door meetings.
“I will look at each and every allegation and interview those involved under oath,” Ferro said in a Friday interview.
Ferro noted that Smith has made similar accusations toward former employers, especially when he is confronted about not completing his work.
The letter to Maier from Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell reveals that Smith believes Maier has created a hostile work environment and that he uncovered serious life safety issues within the district’s emergency sheltering plan that Maier failed to address.
Smith said that Maier failed to notify the School Board that a special-needs shelter (Belleview High School) was without a generator, and that new generators obtained with a grant do not have the capacity to adequately run the air conditioning system.
On Thursday, the School Board learned that Belleview High, one of the two special-needs shelters, has not had a generator since hurricane season began on June 1.
A week after Smith’s email was sent, Maier emailed State Attorney Brad King, stating that she wanted his office to investigate the School Board.
Maier wrote that she is the legally elected school superintendent, and that on Aug. 8 she was not allowed to complete her administrative briefing at the regularly scheduled School Board work session.
During that briefing, King abruptly stopped the meeting and “called a recess to stop my briefing to the board,” Maier's email to King says.
“I was told by Ms. King that she was not going to permit me to continue providing my briefing to the members of the board and a recess was taken,” Maier wrote. “All of the members retired from the boardroom together and when the board came back, Ms. King addressed those in attendance and indicated that the members had reached a consensus to stop my presentation.”
Maier continued, writing that “it was painfully obvious that the members of the board had congregated illegally and discussed how I was to be prevented from delivering my briefing to the board.”
After that Aug. 8 work session, Maier contacted her attorney with the firm Allen Norton and Blue “to prepare a memorandum that would instruct the Board as to the appropriateness of receiving their administrative briefings.”
“I am respectfully requesting that the Office of the State Attorney initiate an investigation as to conduct of the Marion County School Board on Aug. 8, regarding a violation of the Florida Sunshine Act,” she wrote.
State Attorney's Office officials said they are looking into the complaint.
Stacy said Maier claims that all members left the meeting room and then “the board obviously congregated illegally.”
“Well, THIS board member never retired from the dais, so that means that obviously the superintendent’s written story starts out not true!” Stacy wrote in a text interview.
Maier wrote in an email to the board after she was not allowed to finish her administrative briefing that “her mission has not changed and I look forward to working with the School Board to continue our district's positive momentum.”
“There is still much to accomplish as we increase our quality opportunities for students in Marion County and achieve the goal of an 'A' School District,” she noted.
The Whistleblower Act provides recourse for a reporting party “if it is suspected that retaliatory action has been taken as a result of that party’s reporting activity,” according to the state Department of Education website. The School Board made sure that Smith maintained his employment.
Smith’s personnel file states that he is continuing to work while the investigation is ongoing. If the allegations are deemed to be false at the conclusion of the probe, the district would accept his resignation immediately, according to a letter placed in his file.
If the investigation finds that any of the allegations are true, or they were reasonable concerns, Smith will retain his job with the district.
Conflicts between the superintendent and board have been increasing ever since Marion County residents voted to allow the School Board to appoint the school superintendent, beginning in 2020.
Until that vote last year, Marion was the second largest school district in the country with an elected K-12 leader.
Florida’s Attorney General ruled early this year that Maier, who was elected in 2016, can complete her term, which expires in November 2020. The School Board recently unanimously voted that it will not consider Maier as the first appointed leader.
Joe Callahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JoeOcalaNews