- Melissa B. Taboada American-Statesman Staff
A months-long Hays school district investigation into complaints of a hostile work environment at an elementary school played a role in the abrupt departure of Superintendent Michael McKie, documents obtained by the American-Statesman show.
McKie, hired in May 2013, had two years left on his contract when he resigned May 9. He received a settlement of $236,929, according to a district separation agreement, which prevents the district, trustees and McKie from making any disparaging remarks or disclosing the events leading to the agreement.
The records obtained by the Statesman shed light on a personnel dispute at Hemphill Elementary School that caused divisions between administrators and the school board in the weeks before McKie decided to leave.
Multiple employees at Hemphill Elementary complained that two teachers who are friends of school board member Esperanza Orosco had bullied and intimidated other staff members at the school, according to the records.
Staff members interviewed during the investigation also made similar allegations about Orosco, who frequently visited the teachers at the school.
When McKie notified the school board that actions were being taken to address the teachers’ behavior, some board members raised questions about the investigation, causing friction between a few trustees and McKie and other administrators, the records show. Then-school board President Holly Raymond said in an email to McKie that a human resources administrator had used unacceptable tactics when he interviewed two dozen school staffers.
Soon after, Orosco moved to oust the administrator, Ron Morrison, by voting against his contract renewal at a May board meeting. The rest of the board voted against Orosco, and one trustee abstained, and Morrison kept his job. McKie announced his resignation the same month, effective at the end of the school year.
McKie, reached by phone, declined an interview and said that, based on his separation agreement, he was not at liberty to discuss the reasons for his departure, his relationship with the board or the investigation.
Slow to release documents
At the time of McKie’s departure, he and the district released a joint statement that said his departure was subject to the provisions of the separation agreement, which was not made public at the time. No further explanation was given then.
The American-Statesman requested documents related to the investigation in August, but it took the district more than five weeks to release any of the information, including documents that already had been released to at least one other community member and McKie’s separation agreement, a public document that was signed May 12.
Citing the Texas Public Information Act, the district asked the Texas attorney general for permission to withhold other documents pertaining to the investigation, as well as various emails and memos between McKie and the board. Among those documents was one outlining the findings of the investigation. After multiple requests for the investigative findings from the American-Statesman and its lawyer, the district released the document Thursday, saying it had been erroneously withheld.
The documents show that the investigation at Hemphill Elementary was prompted by an Aug.31, 2016, email by a former assistant principal questioning the appropriateness of Orosco’s frequent visits to the campus.
According to the district’s investigation, which included about two dozen employee interviews, other staff members alleged that teachers Carla Perez and Nancy Martinez contributed to an environment of fear and intimidation at the school, in part because of their relationship with Orosco and their role with the teachers’ union. Staffers said the women coerced at least two teachers, “out of fear of retaliation,” into signing a petition to fire a principal at another campus, according to the documents.
According to the investigation’s findings, Perez stated that she was involved in gathering the signatures because “a member of the school board reached out to her as the (Texas State Teachers Association chapter) president and asked TSTA to help in the removal” of the principal, though the statement was not substantiated.
Perez said the allegations were not proven and she felt the situation was handled in an unprofessional way.
“If there were really truthful allegations that were made, they would have come to light, they would have held some water, and I probably wouldn’t have a job,” Perez said. “But a lot of the information was based on hearsay or that people’s feelings were hurt.”
Perez said a memorandum was filed in her personnel file, but “it was definitely not a write-up.”
Orosco said it was unfortunate the investigation even took place, saying, “There were lots of false allegations. … Nothing was substantiated, and nothing came out of it.”
Though she declined to name specific employees, Orosco described the methods used by the school district’s investigator as “aggressive behavior” and described some of the investigation, including its length, as “very inappropriate.”
Orosco worked as a teacher in the Hays district for 11 years, including at Hemphill, which is southeast of Kyle, before she ran for the school board. She was the chapter president of the teachers’ union for seven years, and she said she routinely visits many campuses and has friends across the district, including Perez and Martinez.
Orosco said she raised concerns regarding a turnaround plan for Hemphill, which has struggled to meet state academic standards.
“As a board member, it is my job to ensure our students are being successful. We need to ask those hard questions sometimes to make sure we’re headed in that direction,” Orosco said. “I asked a lot of questions, and I think that’s where some of the allegations came from, and it’s unfortunate.”
By February, about five months into the investigation, tensions became evident between McKie and at least some trustees during school board meetings, according to the records. District emails show that at least some of the issues were related to the Hemphill inquiry. A closed-door session, with lawyers present, was held in March to resolve a conflict between McKie and Orosco.
Raymond, then the school board president, sent an email requesting an update on Hemphill in April, asking McKie for the documentation of the employees who were “written up” and whether there had been any other investigations involving school board members.
She also wanted to know whether a grievance had been filed against the board. She says in the email that the “tactics used by Ron (Morrison) are not acceptable.”
Raymond now says she was wrong in her initial thoughts about how Morrison handled the investigation but would not elaborate because such discussions took place in closed session. “I have a completely different opinion about that now. … Now that I have more information, I don’t have the same opinion,” she said.
She also would not comment on whether the investigation prompted the departure of McKie, referring to the separation agreement.
But district documents shed light on what happened. In February, Rick Hill, a lawyer representing McKie, wrote to the district’s attorney to spell out ongoing issues with Orosco.
“Going back over several months, Mr. McKie, various members of his cabinet level administration, and various campus administrators have been on the receiving end of and subjected to inappropriate, hostile, threatening, intimidating, and demeaning comments made, in particular, by Esperanza Orosco in open and closed sessions of HCISD Board meetings,” Hill wrote. “Mrs. Orosco’s behavior is exposing the District to employment claims of, among others, threatening and hostile work environment, workplace harassment, threatened adverse and retaliatory employment action, bullying, and slander of professional reputation.”
One month later, Orosco’s lawyer, Lindsay Gustafson, said in a written response that none of Orosco’s conduct broke laws or policies and complained that Hill “uses highly inflammatory language about Ms. Orosco.”
“Mr. Hill gives an example of Ms. Orosco’s making a statement that there was a ‘total failure’ in a department and that her stating that she felt that teachers were not being supported appropriately as evidence that she was acting inappropriately,” Gustafson wrote. “While possibly not comfortable for administration to hear, these statements are well within a board member acting in their elected capacity. This is open government. These types of statements of discontent happen at every level of government.”
McKie had other issues during his four-year tenure. He was criticized for the district’s 2015 divisive decision to scrub “Dixie” as the Hays High School fight song. (The school board already had voted in 2000 to phase out the use of the Confederate battle flag, which once flew from the bleachers, and in 2012, the district banned the flag entirely on district property.)
At the end of April, a handful of parents and community members also challenged the board to make personnel changes in leadership and complained of lackluster academic achievement. Hemphill has struggled to meet state standards, and documents show the tensions at the school included curriculum changes in the early grades.
Because of the turnaround plan, about half of the staff at Hemphill was replaced, including the assistant principal whose complaint triggered the initial inquiry and a new principal who interviewed any teachers who wanted to stay. Both Perez and Martinez took jobs at other campuses.
Martinez did not respond to requests for comment.