Multi-Year Disaster At Neva King Cooper Educational Center, Part Three

The first time the district is authorized to play a role in the [charter school conversion] process occurs when the application is submitted for decision. (FRS1002.33(3)(b). Despite these restrictions, the district chose to maintain a very pronounced presence at NKC. For the next three months, two very senior district administrators (Ava Goldman, administrative director and Mr. Will Gordillo, Dr. Fernandez’ immediate supervisor) were on our school campus all day long, every day the school was in session. The reason given by the district for this was that these two extremely prominent administrators were there to answer any questions our staff had about converting to a charter school. Quite frankly, all of the questions our staff had were answered within the first 2-3 days of their stay on our campus. Given the high salaries those two officials were paid, it would be interesting to know how much taxpayers had to pay for their three month stay at one of the smallest schools in Miami-Dade County. Rightly or wrongly, the NKC staff viewed the daily attendance of two very senior district officials as an attempt to intimidate the staff.

One day, while the students were still on campus, Ms. Ava Goldman knocked on my classroom door and said she needed to speak to me immediately. Ms. Goldman and I then spent the next 20 minutes standing right next to my closed classroom door while she asked me a series of questions. That year I had the most difficult and behaviorally challenged class of my 30 year career. The only staff person left in my classroom  (while Ms. Goldman interviewed me) was my paraprofessional. As Ms. Goldman continued to question me, the volume of noise inside my classroom steadily increased. I heard a great deal of shouting, both from my paraprofessional and my students. I also heard several crashes  and other loud noises.  Perhaps I am wrong, but I find it hard to imagine that Ms. Goldman could not also hear the chaos inside my classroom, as she was standing right next to me.

At no time did she offer to continue her questioning after the students went home for the day. This is odd, because after spending her entire day at our campus for 3 months, she surely must have been aware of the fact that the entire staff had an hour long planning period every day after the students went home for the day. When I returned to my classroom after Ms. Goldman finished questioning me, my classroom was in a shambles, and my paraprofessional was extremely upset. Several tables and chairs were overturned and some expensive educational materials had been destroyed. Thankfully, none of my students were injured during my 20 minute instructional time conference with Ms. Goldman. If one or more of my students had been injured, I am wondering if Ms. Goldman would have assumed responsibility on my mandatory student injury report. Several other teachers also reported lengthy questioning by Ms. Goldman during instructional time. These teachers also felt that Ms. Goldman’s actions needlessly placed our students at risk for injury.

Prior to NKC notifying the district of our intention to explore the option of converting to a charter school, Mr. Will Gordillo had visited our campus on perhaps a half dozen occasions, never staying for more than half a day. Ms. Goldman had never before visited our campus. Mr. Gordillo and Ms. Goldman were not the only high ranking district officials to visit our school during the next 3 months. On February 3, the day after the district was notified of the NKC decision to explore a charter school conversion, our campus was visited by several senior district officials, including a region director who said she was representing the assistant superintendent for school operations, the region superintendent, and Milagros Fornell, who is the associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction, and a member of the superintendent’s cabinet. The visits and the conversation included implied threats to Dr. Fernandez’ employment. For example, the region director on numerous occasions reminded Dr. Fernandez that he was “still an employee of the school district” repeatedly making this comment in the presence of the school’s assistant principal. In addition, Ms. Fornell  also commented as to how “disappointed” she was regarding Dr. Fernandez’ recommendation for charter school status. The district instructed Dr. Fernandez to call a meeting of the NKC staff to discuss the charter school conversion. The meeting occurred on February 7, 2012. Approximately 15 high level  administrators, including members of the superintendent’s cabinet, were present at the meeting.

Most of these officials had never been to NKC before. Staff members were given information by district officials that was contrary to FS1002.33 regarding conversion to charter schools. In order to make an informed and intelligent decision regarding conversion to a charter school, staff needed to receive accurate and correct information from district officials. Although district officials had both a legal and moral duty to present NKC staff with accurate and factual information, that simply did not happen. The information we received at that meeting contained numerous egregious errors. For example, district officials told NKC staff that conversion to a charter school would result in a total loss of Federal funds. At the end of our first year of operations, as a charter school, the district told us we could expect to face a deficit of $1.25 million dollars. The figures drawn up by the NKC administrators showed the school enjoying a surplus of $400 thousand dollars at the conclusion of our first year as a charter school. At my request (the writer of this column) I received an extensive briefing by the NKC administrators on our revenues and expenditures as a charter school.

I can therefore state that this $400 thousand dollar surplus was a very conservative estimate. Our actual surplus would probably have been significantly higher. The district officials also incorrectly stated that as a charter school, we would not be allowed to participate in the Florida Retirement System (FRS). School district officials also incorrectly stated that as a charter school, we would lose all of our health benefits. Finally, we were incorrectly told that as a charter school, we could not expect the district to cover the cost of transporting our students to and from school via bus. The district’s information was so grossly inaccurate that a reasonable person would conclude that they were either totally incompetent or deliberately lying to us. To make matters worse, neither Dr. Fernandez or Mr. Cristobol was given an opportunity to speak at this meeting, so they were unable to correct these numerous serious mistakes. a result, NKC staff left that meeting with grossly inaccurate information. As a member of the NKC staff at that time, I can state that the information dispensed at that meeting was HUGELY instrumental in convincing staff that conversion to a charter school was not economically viable.

On February 9,2012, Dr. Fernandez sent an email to his immediate supervisor, Mr. Will Gordillo requesting that Mr. Gordillo forward a memorandum to Ms. Judith Marte, chief budget officer titled “funding sources for charter schools, legal requirements.” Ms. Marte sent Dr. Fernandez a response memorandum dated February 14, 2012, in which Ms. Marte provided inaccurate and incomplete information regarding the budget. The district instructed Dr. Fernandez to call a meeting of the parents of NKC students to discuss the conversion process. The meeting was held on February 16, 2012, and was controlled by administrators from the district. Much of the same incorrect information that was presented to NKC staff was repeated to NKC parents. Dr. Fernandez was in constant communication with district officials, and made numerous requests that correct information be provided to staff PRIOR to the conversion voting. The district provided some but not nearly all of the information requested. As a result, Dr. Fernandez notified his superiors that he was postponing the vote.

On February 18, Dr. Fernandez received an email from Ms. Goldman ordering him not to conduct the voting. This instruction from Ms. Goldman was in direct violation of Florida law and the Florida Administrative Code that a) provides the applicant with the absolute right for one teacher and parent vote per year. b) requires that the school administrator conduct such votes c) assigns full responsibility and control of the overall application and ballot process to the applicant and the school administrator(FS1002.33 (6)7(b);F.A.C.6A-6.0787(1). On April 26,2012, an investigator from the district’s Civilian Investigative Unit (CIU) sent a letter to certain NKC employees indicating that she had been assigned the task of investigating the allegation that Dr. Fernandez and Mr. Cristobol may have violated school board policies. The letter stated that this was “an open investigation, no other information can be provided at this time.” The recipients of the letter were “advised not to contact any subject(s) or witnesses, with the intent to interfere with the investigation…”. On April 23, 2012, Ms. Milagros Fornell appeared in Dr. Fernandez’ office at NKC around 2:20 P.M.. She served written notice to both Dr. Fernandez and Mr. Cristobol naming them the subject of an investigation for their efforts in attempting to influence the outcome of the vote for a proposed charter school conversion. The notification does not contend that Dr. Fernandez engaged in any unlawful activities in conjunction with an application to establish a charter school. Such contention and subsequent proof would be the only way that the district could cause Dr. Fernandez to lose his protected status under Florida law (FS1002.33(4)(a)).

The district also failed to comply with its own Personnel Investigative Model (PIM) which is subject to the district’s written policy. The notification provided to Dr. Fernandez led to an investigation that was to be conducted by the district’s Civilian Investigative Unit (CIU) According to the policy, the PIM was developed to “address concerns and incorporate recommendations made by educational stakeholders to insure that district-initiated  investigations are completed with objectivity, fairness, and with a FULL APPRECIATION OF OUR EMPLOYEES RIGHTS; (emphasis added) while maintaining the legal integrity of the investigative process.” The district violated Dr. Fernandez right to directly or indirectly participate in the application for charter status as guaranteed by Florida charter school law. (FS1002.33(4)(a)(2011). According to the policy, the PIM is “designed to provide a more transparent process for conducting investigations. It is intended to respect and enhance the Due Process rights of district employees. and provide uniformity to the recommendations for DISCIPLINARY ACTION. (emphasis added) A “disciplinary action” for participating in a charter application process is a direct violation of FS1002.33(4)(a). On April 24, 2012, Julio Miranda, an auditor from the district’s audit department, accompanied by a district investigator, arrived unannounced at the school.

Alberto+Carvalho+September+9+2013

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho

These district officials reiterated the districts claims against Dr. Fernandez and served him with a letter dated April 20, 2012, signed by Mr. Miranda containing allegations concerning the investigation. The letter “prohibited”  Dr. Fernandez from contacting any complaintant(s) or witnesses. The identity of the adverse witnesses and the accusers that Dr. Fernandez was not to contact was withheld from Dr. Fernandez. On May 18, 2012, Dr. Fernandez was summoned to Ms. Fornell’s office. Ms. Fornell gave Dr. Fernandez a “Reappointment Recommendation” form for him to sign. In the form, Ms. Goldman and Ms. Fornell recommended “Reappointment SUBJECT TO RESOLUTION OF PENDING ISSUES…” On June 8, 2012, Ms. Ana Rasco from the Office of Professional Standards caused the issuance of a letter to Dr. Fernandez confirming the substance of the meeting in Ms. Fornell’s office concerning Dr. Fernandez’ reappointment. “subject to the resolution of pending issues.”

On June 26, 2012, Ms. Rasco caused the issuance of a letter informing Dr. Fernandez that the outcome of the investigation conducted by the CIU had resulted in a finding of probable cause against Dr. Fernandez for the violation of enumerated district policies. The violations of protected status, adverse actions and the unlawful reprisal detailed above have all occurred since the district was notified of the efforts of NKC to explore charter status and consider conversion to charter school in accordance with Florida law. The district’s unlawful actions and the unlawful reprisal  were a direct and proximate result of the lawful actions of Dr. Fernandez, NKC employees, and parents on behalf of NKC students and their families as they sought to explore conversion charter status for the school. On May 2, 2012, Dr. Fernandez and Mr. Cristobol were summoned to the district office where each was assigned a directive entitled “terms and conditions of an alternate assignment.” The directive issued instructed the two NKC administrators to remove themselves from Neva King Cooper School and stripped them of their responsibilities as administrators of NKC.

Dr. Fernandez and Mr. Cristobol were reassigned to menial tasks elsewhere  in the school district that amounted to “changes and duties or responsibilities that [were] inconsistent with the employees salary or employment clarification.” FS1002.33 (40(a). In addition, they were ordered not to contact, visit, or engage in any type of communication with staff, parents, community members, or witnesses to the pending investigation. The adverse transfer and reassignment took effect immediately. Readers wishing to delve further into this case can do so by going to www.floridadoah.org and clicking on case Florida DOAH 13-1492, as mentioned earlier. The penalties both Dr. Fernandez and Mr. Cristobol paid for their heroic attempt to defend profoundly mentally handicapped children who literally cannot speak for themselves may move you to tears. On May2, 2012, with a little over a month remaining in the school year, BOTH our administrators were removed from our school, even though both administrators were ENORMOUSLY popular with parents, staff, PTA, and all other relevant NKC stakeholders, causing needless hardship at the school. It is highly unusual to remove even one, let alone both administrators prior to the end of a school year. The obvious question is why Mr. Carvalho simply did not wait until the end of the school year, and very quietly exile them at that time?

The reason given by Mr. Carvalho was that he (Mr. Carvalho) had been told by anonymous sources that the NKC administrators were “attempting to intimidate NKC staff into voting for the charter school.” The two NKC administrators had been removed from our campus, and warned to have no further contact with NKC staff. Furthermore, there was very little chance of them ever returning to NKC, so “intimidated” NKC staff would not have to worry about any retaliation from the two exiled administrators, should they choose to step forward and provide testimony about how they had been “intimidated.” When district representatives visited our campus to take statements from any NKC staff who had been intimidated by Dr. Fernandez and/or Mr. Cristobol, not a single NKC staff person reported any retaliation, or threats of retaliation from either NKC administrator. Had the district posed the question of whether NKC staff felt intimidated by the actions of the district over the preceding three months, nearly the entire staff would have stepped forward to lodge complaints against the district.

Myself and many other NKC staff felt it was highly hypocritical of the district to accuse our school administrators of intimidation when the CONSIDERABLE amount of intimidation came from the district against the NKC staff.

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