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Published: Tuesday, 9/2/2014 - Updated: 1 month ago

TOLEDO PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Referee: Educator should not be fired

Discipline hearing officer still may lose job

BY NOLAN ROSENKRANS
BLADE STAFF WRITER

For the second time in a row, a state-appointed referee has ruled that a suspended Toledo Public Schools employee should not be fired.

Ronald Spitulski, a student discipline hearing officer, is accused of using inappropriate language during a student suspension appeal, acting unprofessionally toward parents, failing to maintain accurate hearing records, and misplacing or not keeping audio recordings of hearings as required by state law.

Mr. Spitulski has been on paid suspension since Oct. 17, and district administrators have recommended he be fired.

But the referee, attorney James Gucker, ruled last month that TPS officials had not proven the district’s case. The Toledo Board of Education could choose to fire him anyway, like it did last year with former assistant principal Sandra Meeks-Speller.

Dennis Grant, Mr. Spitulski’s attorney, welcomed the referee’s decision, and said he would fight a termination ruling by TPS if one comes.

“I intend to do everything possible to vindicate him, because he did nothing wrong,” Mr. Grant said.

Much of the district’s claims revolve around parents’ complaints about Mr. Spitulski’s behavior toward them, or on his interactions with Twila Page, a member of the African-American Parents’ Association, which advocates for families who request its help during student-discipline appeals.

Mr. Spitulski, the referee’s ruling states, “was openly critical of TPS’ position of allowing Ms. Page to involve herself in such a capacity.”

Ms. Page in a prior interview has described Mr. Spitulski as unfair, condescending, and threatening in hearings.

Ms. Page has few open fans within TPS and is a frequent critic of the district. Some TPS administrators, though, quietly admit she has been right on some core issues, such as how the district disproportionately disciplines black students compared with their white peers.

District officials had met with Mr. Spitulski about his “unprofessional treatment of Ms. Page,” but Mr. Gucker ruled that the evidence showed Mr. Spitulski had not acted unprofessionally.

“One would certainly expect that out of hundreds of hearings and phone conversations with parents of suspended or expelled students, several parents would be disgruntled and complain about ‘something,’ ” Mr. Gucker wrote.

The referee found no evidence Mr. Spitulski purposefully lost audio records, and also noted Mr. Spitulski received positive evaluations in the five years before his suspension, which he called overwhelming evidence that Mr. Spitulski had been an exceptional employee.

Mr. Spitulski has faced controversy in the past. A group of teachers threatened to walk out of Woodward High in 2007 instead of work for him as principal.

He unsuccessfully sued nine teachers and the Toledo Federation of Teachers, alleging “slander, libel, and false light invasion of privacy.”

TPS Chief of Staff Brian Murphy defended the district’s decision, but Mr. Spitulski’s future at TPS will rest with the school board.

“We have high expectations of our employees, and we truly live by that,” he said.

Mr. Grant also represented Ms. Meeks-Speller, whom administrators accused of using inappropriate physical discipline with students, making threats, and using racially tinged language.

The Toledo school board terminated her, despite a referee’s report that said she should not be fired.

Ms. Meeks-Speller appealed her termination in Lucas County Common Pleas Court and sued the district claiming, among other things, malicious breach of contract, defamation, and emotional stress and mental pain. She asked a judge to award her $3 million.

A judge dismissed much of her complaint and upheld her termination.

She’s appealed those rulings, and a defamation claim against some TPS staff is pending.

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



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