Commonwealth Journal

January 18, 2013

Employees file suit against Pulaski schools

By CHRIS HARRIS, CJ Staff Writer
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —  

A scandal at a Pulaski County school more than a year ago has returned to haunt the county school district, as three individuals have filed a lawsuit in Pulaski Circuit Court.
Three Pulaski County School System employees are claiming they were treated unfairly and removed from their positions following the demotion hearing of former Pulaski Central Principal Dan Price.
In August of 2011, Pulaski County school officials received a letter from the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability stating that allegations had been made about students at Pulaski Central Alternative School being permitted to take final exams and earn credit for courses they hadn’t taken or that they were failing.
Price sued the school system and sought a hearing with the county Board of Education to try and get his job back after being reassigned to a teacher position at Southwestern High School.
The board voted 3-2 to deny Price in that effort — board members Edwin Sellers and Olivia Minton (the latter of which had previously nominated Price for superintendent) were the two in his favor — but only after hearing from numerous witnesses over the course of several days in early 2012.
Among them were the plaintiffs in this newest lawsuit, Wenda Conley, Michael Napier and Alice Vanhook. The suit claims that these individuals have “suffered and continue to suffer emotional distress, embarrassment and humiliation” because of “”outrageous acts ... committed with malice, oppression ... and wanton disregard of the rights of the plaintiffs for which they are entitled to recover punitive damages” at the hands of the defendants.
The Pulaski County Board of Education, Butcher, and the board members at the time of the Price hearing — Minton, Sellers, Cindy Price, Jim Wilson and Phillip Wilson — are named as defendants in the suit.
The plaintiffs are all listed in the suit as individuals who testified or were subpoenaed in the Price case. Conley and Vanhook were Pulaski Central employees, and Napier had recently moved from London to become assistant principal at Southern Middle, as stated in the suit. 
Napier and Vanhook testified at the hearing on behalf of Price, and Conley, who was interviewed by the Office of Education Accountability, was subpoenaed but did not testify. 
“In all, 16 employees of the Pulaski County Board of Education were either subpoenaed or testified at the tribunal hearing on behalf of Dan Price,” reads the suit, which then goes on to name the employees and how they were transferred to other positions or did not have their employment contracts renewed with the school system. 
That includes the plaintiffs: Conley was the bookkeeper at Pulaski Central, but was transferred to the food service department; Vanhook was transferred from Pulaski Central to Southwestern; and Napier — Price’s brother-in-law — did not have his contract renewed, all according to the suit.
“The plaintiffs were discriminated against in that they have either been transferred or terminated, their pay has been reduced and they have experienced a hostile work environment due to politics,” according to the suit, which calls for a trial by jury on all issues that are triable, compensatory damages against the defendants in both an individual and official capacities “in an amount in excess of the jurisdictional limits of this Court,” and punitive damages and attorney’s fees.
The attorney for the plaintiffs is listed as Daniel G. Yeast, of Morgan, Brashear. Collins & Yeast, PLLC.
Larry Bryson is the attorney for the Pulaski County Board of Education. On Friday, Bryson’s office filed separate answers for both Butcher and the board members.
The answer for Butcher lists 10 different items of defense, including that the “Plaintiffs have failed to allege facts which would authorize an award of punitive damages,” and that “Conley and Vanhook remain employed with the Pulaski County Schools and any loss by them was less than the jurisdictional limits of this Court. ... Conley and Vanhook have no statutory right to employment at any particular school in Pulaski County,” and “Napier did not have tenure in the Pulaski County Schools and failed to make a request of the Superintendent for written reasons,” pursuant to Kentucky law.
The response also says that Napier’s employment at Southern Middle was not renewed at the request of that school’s principal, and that “Napier discussed the reasons with the Principal and did not return to his place of employment after that time, thereby breaching the terms of his contract of employment.”
The answer also says that” after the investigation at Central was complete, Central’s classification as a separate high school no longer existed, the number of students attending decreased and there was no longer a need ore requirement of particular staffing and funding for the positions, particularly those of the Plaintiffs Vanhook and Conley.”
Like Butcher’s, the board’s response says that the compliant failed to state a claim or cause of action upon relief can be granted, and that facts authorizing an award of punitive damages haven’t been alleged. It also says that the Board of Education is a political subdivision of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and the claims made against it are barred by the doctrine of sovereign, government, and qualified official immunity.
Three answering defendants, Price and both Jim and Phillip Wilson “deny that they took any politically motivated action relating to these Plaintiffs, but any actions that were taken by them were in their official capacities” and that “no employment decision was made by any of these Answering Defendants.” The response further states that the complaint “in this case is without any merit.”
The respective answered filed by Bryson move the court to dismiss the complaint.