Norton Elementary goal clarity coach says fired principal bullied her

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The goal clarity coach at Norton Elementary whose position was eliminated in February says that the decision to move her was made in "direct retaliation" after she complained about bullying and hostile behavior at the school.

Renae Mullins-May, who has been the goal clarity coach at Norton since 2012, made a six-page complaint to the district on March 21 in regards to Ken Stites, the longtime principal who was fired by Jefferson County Public Schools on May 30.

According to documents obtained by WDRB through an open records request, Mullins-May wrote in an April 3 appeal that the decision to eliminate the goal clarity position by Norton's site-based decision making council at a meeting on Feb. 28 was in direct retaliation to "my complaints about bullying and hostile behavior, in addition to professional threats, made towards me by Mr. Stites" on Feb. 24.

Stites' termination letter from JCPS states two reasons for his firing: providing "false and/or misleading information on your daughters' student assignment applications" and that he had "improperly overstaffed a position at your school and had inappropriately influenced your SBDM council to defund and remove the position from your school completely."

Stites and his attorney, Will Walsh, have maintained that Stites is innocent of all charges. On Thursday, Walsh told WDRB that Mullins-May's allegations against his client are untrue. He added that Mullins-May had never filed a complaint against Stites until after her position was eliminated.

"My client went out of his way to be scrupulously fair to her," Walsh said, adding that Stites suggested to the site-based council that Mullins-May could remain employed at Norton in a different position this fall. "She didn't file a complaint against Mr. Stites until the goal clarity position was eliminated. That was what has motivated and fueled this entire complaint."

Stites has appealed the district's firing to the state and has asked for a public tribunal to hear his case, which has tentatively been scheduled for July 19.

When reached by phone on Thursday, Mullins-May told WDRB she did not have any comment about her complaint, saying that she is following the "district's policies and procedures."

In her complaint, Mullins-May says she met with Stites on March 8 and was informed that her position was being eliminated at the end of the 2016-17 year. She claims that during that meeting, Stites "continually stated that my position being overstaffed was a 'personal decision, not a professional decision'."

Mullins-May said the "past few months have been fraught with unprofessional behavior and unethical decisions centered around the banning of communication with a large subset of parents of our fifth grade students at Norton, at Mr. Stites' directive."

"The major eruption that benchmarked the current situation occurred on Jan. 17 when a fifth grade teacher at Norton, Mrs. (Karen) Follensbee, walked out of the school building at 10:20 a.m.," Mullins-May wrote in her complaint. "After a weekend of emails between several parents and Mrs. Follensbee, a discussion with Mr. Stites resulted in Mrs. Follensbee trashing the contents of her room and walking through the halls of the school building screaming loudly that she couldn't believe Mr. Stites would ask her 'those questions' and that she was 'out of here'." 

As WDRB reported on Jan. 18, Norton had investigated a grading discrepancy involving Follensbee. She later took a leave of absence from the school and is still on leave, according to Jennifer Brislin, a district spokeswoman.

In her complaint, Mullins-May says she and the school's assistant principal, Emily Iliff, were asked to take Follensbee's students outside so that the plant manager could clean up her room and make it presentable to children."

"Mr. Stites then asked me to cover the classroom for the rest of the day. Upon entering the classroom, I found there were no plans and some portions of the room were still dishelved," Mullins-May wrote. "This is not the first time I have had to cover for Mrs. Follensbee after she has chosen to walk out early in the day."

Mullins-May says Follensbee had a "negative encounter with a parent during a conference" on Oct. 12 and "left the building, also announcing she 'was out of here' and did not return for the remainder of the day." Mullins-May says there was a "failure for Follensbee to be disciplined despite being in violation of school policy and rules."

According to a copy of Follensbee's personnel file obtained by WDRB in separate open records request in February, there were no mentions of either the Oct. 12 incident or Jan. 18 incident. In addition, no disciplinary action has been taken against her.

As a result of Follensbee's actions, Mullins-May said she was asked by Stites to plan and deliver instruction to Follensbee's students for the "foreseeable future'." 

"In the interim, parents of the students in Mrs. Follensbee's room became increasingly upset about the grading procedures she had utilized, pointing out they did not follow JCPS policy," Mullins-May wrote. "This resulted in the media being contacted by parents and their concerns were proven to be founded."

Mullins-May says another parent wrote a letter of concern to Joe Leffert, a JCPS assistant superintendent, and once Stites learned of the letter, he asked Kay Staebler, the fifth grade team leader, to "use her relationship with the parent to make sure the letter didn't make it to Mr. Leffert."

Mullins-May says she was asked to maintain the planning for Follensbee's classroom until a long-term substitute could be found and when a sub was secured, Stites called a meeting with Staebler, the long-term sub and a special education teacher and that "we were told in no uncertain terms, that we were not to have any communication with parents whatsoever."

"I expressed strong concerns for not being able to proactively communicate with parents about the learning and teaching taking place in the room and that it seemed adversarial to ban communication with the parents," Mullins-May wrote.

As parent-teacher conferences approached on Feb. 27, Mullins-May said parents had asked about conferences and she was previously told by Stites on Feb. 13 to "not bring it up" because it would "stir the pot" with parents.

Mullins-May said Iliff told the substitute to "write a letter to parents saying conferences weren't necessary because everyone was doing well."

"I expressed concern about sending a letter ... saying every student was doing well when there were students who were struggling and having some issues," Mullins-May wrote. "A letter was never sent to parents."

Mullins-May says Stites called her down to his office and "interacted with me in a very hostile and bullying manner, making false allegations towards me about fabricated drama on the team and eventually threatening to lie to parents, telling them I wouldn't meet with them."

"He ultimately threatened both my position and professionalism in a harassing manner," she wrote, adding that she was being retaliated for "expressing her disagreement with the banning of communication with parents."

Mullins-May then states that over the course of several years of serving as the goal clarity coach, she has "witnessed the deterioration of the professionalism with which parents have been treated by our principal."

In addition to what Mullins-May refers to as "recent inaccurate and hostile attacks on my  professional credibility, I have found myself personally offended and devalued by negative gender specific comments that Mr. Stites has made."

"He has referred to me and Mrs. Iliff as 'his blondes' when talking about the work he assigns to us," Mullins-May said. "On several occasions, he has made discriminatory comments about some of the women working for our district, more specifically citing 'all of the ladies whose husbands make enough money that they can sit home and eat bonbons while working on their doctorate'."

In addition, she said Stites "has disrespectfully and discriminatorily referred to working in an elementary school as being assigned to be the 'rooster in the hen house'." 

Mullins-May also claims that there have been instances when the line of professionalism has come into question in relation to Mr. Stites' physical management of students."

Walsh told WDRB on Thursday that all of Mullins-May's allegations about Stites are not true and are "unwarranted."

Letters and emails obtained by WDRB News regarding any complaints made by Mullins-May confirm that she had not filed any complaints against Stites until this year.

Norton Elementary is one of the district's highest performing schools and was recently asked to submit an application to be recognized as part of the National Blue Ribbon Schools Program later this fall, which recognizes public and private elementary, middle, and high schools based on their overall academic excellence or their progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups.

Stites' firing has prompted an outpouring of support from students, parents and community members, as several rallies have been held in which they asked the district to reinstate him.

Mullins-May will continue to work as a goal clarity coach at Norton this fall, as the district has agreed to fund her position for one more year.

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Reporter Antoinette Konz can be reached at 585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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