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Former Wichita elementary principal sues district

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, at 7:05 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, at 10:40 a.m.

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A former Wichita elementary school principal is suing the school district, claiming she was unjustly pressured to retire amid false accusations of testing improprieties and that she did nothing wrong.

An attorney representing the school district, meanwhile, said the district stands by its investigation into state testing irregularities and plans to “vigorously defend these erroneous allegations.”

Pam Stead, former principal at Enterprise Elementary School, was a 27-year veteran of the Wichita school district when she retired in April 2012. Shortly afterward, district officials said “protocol wasn’t followed” when some students at Enterprise had their state assessment tests reactivated, allowing answers to be changed after the tests had been completed and submitted.

In a lawsuit filed last month in Sedgwick County District Court, Stead seeks damages in excess of $75,000 from the Wichita district on charges that include defamation, false representation, breach of contract and infliction of emotional distress.

“She was smeared in the public’s eye, and she would like to tell her side of the story,” Kathy Webb, Stead’s attorney, said Wednesday. “This was devastating to her.”

Stead declined to comment on the lawsuit. Webb said she is working again as a principal in the Wichita area.

According to the lawsuit, Stead “applied for and was denied over 250 jobs following her termination and the widespread coverage” of alleged testing improprieties at her former school.

The lawsuit

The lawsuit alleges that on March 28, 2012, Stead was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation of testing procedures. About a month later she was the subject of a “disciplinary conference,” during which district officials presented a document alleging she had “reactivated the tests of 18 students for improper reasons.”

During the meeting Stead explained the reasons she had reactivated the tests – reasons she said were “appropriate and consistent with all relevant testing standards.”

According to the lawsuit, 10 students had complained that they were unable to concentrate “due to loud construction noise going on just outside the testing area.”

“At the time of the test, the Enterprise Elementary school building was undergoing significant construction and the noise from concrete saws, jackhammers and large bulldozing equipment created intolerable distractions for these students,” the lawsuit says.

Three students “had not received proper instruction in how to use the computer” for completing the test, the lawsuit says. Another student vomited during the test, one “became upset and unruly,” a student with behavioral issues became “extremely angry,” one had not taken his medication and one had not received required special education accommodations, the lawsuit says.

“The implication was that these tests were reactivated because students did not perform as well as they had the previous year,” said Webb, Stead’s attorney. “That is just not true. It’s not the case at all.”

The lawsuit alleges that Stead’s disciplinary conference was “fraught with errors and misstatements. Witnesses interviewed, if any, were not identified; specific protocols allegedly violated were not identified; and, most importantly, the critical document – the reactivation log for Enterprise – had not even been completed at the time of the conference.”

The lawsuit also alleges that during Stead’s disciplinary conference, Mary Whiteside, the district’s former director of human resources, “disclosed that three other schools had similar reactivation issues, but they were not investigated.”

District responds

District officials declined to comment on the lawsuit. Richard James, an attorney representing the district on the matter, issued this statement via e-mail:

“The Wichita Public Schools stands by the thoroughness and integrity of the investigation it completed into state testing irregularities and the conclusion of the investigation.

“My client believes in high standards for all students and is committed to giving all students the best possible opportunity for learning. To violate the integrity of the testing process does not support the goals and ideals of the Wichita Public Schools. The district will file its response in court and plans to vigorously defend these erroneous allegations.”

Damaged reputation

Webb says district officials gave Stead three options: resign; take a teaching position, which would have meant a substantial pay cut; or plead her case with the Board of Education and risk losing about $250,000 in benefits through the district’s “pre-early retirement” program.

“USD 259 representatives and officials were impugning the character and reputation of Ms. Stead in the media and portraying her as an unethical, cheating, test score-changing principal,” the lawsuit says. And “those same people … instructed Ms. Stead not to speak to anyone about the investigation.”

The lawsuit points to Wichita Eagle reports in which district and state officials spoke about safeguards that make cheating by students or school officials “unlikely.”

In one, school board member Betty Arnold said, “I appreciate the way that it was handled. The last thing I would want us to do is emulate some of the other states that have ended up with a black eye because of this.”

Enterprise Elementary, near I-235 and MacArthur Road in south Wichita, was the focus of an Eagle report in February 2012 that highlighted large gains in assessment scores over the previous five years. More than 90 percent of children at Enterprise receive free or reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty.

Before her tenure at Enterprise, Stead was principal at Riverside Elementary and assistant principal at Horace Mann Dual Language Magnet. She taught in several other Wichita schools, starting at McCormick Elementary in 1985, where she was a first-grade teacher.

Webb said the former principal “wants her side of the story told.” In addition, “she would like to recover the lost wages and benefits and emotional distress injuries,” Webb said.

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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