Referee says TPS educator shouldn't be fired

Allegations rejected as unsubstantiated

5/8/2013
BY NOLAN ROSENKRANS
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Sandra Meeks-Speller had been accused of using inappropriate discipline, making threats, and using racially tinged language.
Sandra Meeks-Speller had been accused of using inappropriate discipline, making threats, and using racially tinged language.

A state-appointed referee has ruled that a suspended Toledo Public Schools assistant principal should not be fired, after he rejected most of the district’s allegations as unsubstantiated or untrue.

Sandra Meeks-Speller had been accused by district administrators of using inappropriate physical discipline with students, making threats, and using racially tinged language. She was placed on paid administrative suspension Aug. 8 pending possible termination.

District administrators have recommended she be fired, but the Toledo Board of Education makes final decisions on contract terminations. In cases of possible terminations, school employees can demand first to have a hearing before either the board or a state referee, and Ms. Meeks-Speller requested that hearing. The referee’s recommendation isn’t binding.

RELATED: Read the full ruling from Ohio referee Anthony Gretick

In his ruling, referee Anthony Gretick rejected nearly all the district’s accusations against Ms. Meeks-Speller, either for lack of evidence, unconvincing testimony, biased witnesses, or because the allegations did not rise to the grounds of discipline.

“It is the finding and conclusion of the Referee that the Administration has failed to carry the burden that the conduct by Ms. Speller of which she has been accused which has been proven by competent evidence is good and just cause for the termination,” Mr. Gretick wrote.

The district largely deferred comment Tuesday, saying only that it had received the report and the board will consider the referee’s ruling. Board President Brenda Hill said she plans to bring up Ms. Meeks-Speller’s status at the May 28 board meeting. Since the referee’s ruling is not binding, the board still could vote to fire Ms. Meeks-Speller. Ms. Hill said she’d read the report only briefly, and would need a more thorough reading before she could decide what to think of the ruling.

Messages left for Ms. Meeks-Speller and her attorney Tuesday were not returned.

Ms. Meeks-Speller had been a teacher and an administrator at Scott High School from 1998 to 2007, and then moved to what was then DeVeaux Junior High School. At Scott, she received largely high marks on reviews, the ruling says. Chad Henderly became principal at DeVeaux in 2009, and Ms. Meeks-Speller began getting poor remarks on her evaluations.

In 2011, she transferred to Spring Elementary, where she worked under Principal Victoria Dipman. Mr. Gretick said Ms. Dipman almost immediately began keeping a log on Ms. Meeks-Speller. Mr. Gretick argued that Mr. Henderly “poisoned the well” against Ms. Meeks-Speller at Spring by communicating with Ms. Dipman before the school year, though Mr. Henderly denied that.

“The phrase ‘toxic work environment’ springs to mind when describing Ms. Speller’s later tenure at DeVeaux and her tenure at Spring,” Mr. Gretick said.

Beyond rejecting most of the district’s assertions, Mr. Gretick also used his ruling to make far-reaching claims about some TPS building administrators, arguing that the nearly all-white administrators at DeVeaux and Spring did not accept Ms. Meeks-Speller. “At DeVeaux, she was the only female administrator and the only African-American administrator. As such, to a great extent she served as an important link to the majority African-American community which is served by DeVeaux, which her early evaluations indicated,” he wrote. “Ms. Speller was probably not accepted into the all-white male administrative hierarchy at DeVeaux which she described as an ‘old boys’ network.”

DeVeaux’s enrollment is actually majority white, state data show. Students at Spring are overwhelming African-American.

Mr. Gretick, a retired Williams County Common Pleas judge, was surprised Tuesday to learn reporters had a copy of his ruling. He said any comment by him on the ruling would be both “premature and inappropriate.” But when asked if he asserted in his ruling that Ms. Meeks-Speller faced racial and gender bias at TPS, he said it wasn’t meant to be an explicit conclusion. “I’m just commenting from the facts on the record, that all the administrators were white and male and that’s the situation in which she found herself,” he said.

This isn’t the first time Mr. Gretick has disagreed with an area district administration’s recommendation to terminate. When Savita Jindal, the Sylvania district’s former director of food service, was terminated Feb. 25 by a unanimous vote by the school board for allegedly misreporting the number of free or reduced lunches served to students, it did so against his recommendation.

He wrote in a ruling then that administrators had “rushed to judgment … without fully comprehending the reimbursement procedure and the process” Mrs. Jindal used to generate numbers she believed were accurate.

Toledo’s board meets at 5:30 p.m. May 28 at the Thurgood Marshall Building, 420 E. Manhattan Blvd.

Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at nrosenkrans@theblade.com or 419-724-6086, or on Twitter @NolanRosenkrans.