SACRAMENTO – El Dorado Union High School District commissioners' decision to fire Oak Ridge High School principal Paul Burke has caused ructions among students, parents, teachers and school and district administrators.
High school district commissioners on Feb. 29 voted unanimously 5-0 not to renew Burke's contract and keep him on administrative leave until the end of the school year. Burke was put on leave Nov. 2, 2015, following allegations that he sexually harassed a teacher.
Burke's popularity among students and parents has led to public calls for his reinstatement, as well as a wider campaign to ferret and wipe out what are seen as damaging and unethical political machinations inside the school district. Students and parents' perceptions and opinions of Burke stand in stark contrast to those expressed by Oak Ridge High School teachers and administrators in a 16-page investigative report issued Feb. 23 conducted by The Bodine Group on behalf of the school district commission.
Seeking $2.5 million in damages, Burke's attorney Jacob D. Flesher on June 13 filed a federal lawsuit against the El Dorado Union High School District in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California. In it, Burke alleges that his employment was wrongfully terminated and that his civil and other rights were violated when he was wrongfully accused of sexual harassment and subsequently the subject of a smear campaign.
The suit states alleged victim came out and denied she was harassed.
In addition to violating his civil rights, Burke alleges retaliatory actions taken by El Dorado High School District and Oak Ridge High School staff violate the Brown Act regarding closed-door meetings and, based on a diagnosis of benign tremor syndrome, the Americans with Disabilities Act.
El Dorado Union High School District Superintendent Stephen Wehr is listed as a defendant in Burke's lawsuit along with Assistant Superintendent Tony DeVille, and Courtney McGinty Soto, Burke’s former administrative assistant.
Speaking on behalf of the school district, Wehr responded in a prepared statement by saying: "The matter is being handled by our attorneys. Any info about the lawsuit is a matter of public record and can be found in the court's records as they develop."
A parent of an Oak Ridge High School student, Brent Lowder is co-chair of El Dorado Parents for District Change, a community group that is campaigning to have Burke reinstated as the principal at Oak Ridge High School and elect five new El Dorado Union High School District commissioners in November 2016 and 2017 elections.
"Lots of students and parents had varying degrees of relationships with Paul Burke when he was the principal at Oak Ridge, but no one ever questioned his character. When it came out that he had been placed on administrative leave for sexual harassment it was completely inconsistent with the man the community knew," Lowder told the Northern California Record.
El Dorado Parents for District Change issued a petition and collected signatures from more than 1,000 people in the community in support of Burke's reinstatement.
Addressing the differences of opinion of Burke among parents and students as compared to those expressed by Oak Ridge High School teachers and administrators in The Bodine Group report, Lowder said parents and students have come to believe that the investigation was conducted in a tainted environment.
Setting aside perceptions of a longstanding, possibly unethical relationship between the commission and The Bodine Group, Lowder pointed out that group members believe the staff member who originally claimed Burke had harassed another Oak Ridge High School teacher continued working at the school after Burke was put on leave and allegedly continued to spread false accusations to further discredit him while the investigation was being conducted.
Lowder also noted that the allegation that Burke sexually harassed a female teacher was quickly proved false. Furthermore, he said that the alleged victim apparently became so frustrated with the situation and the way the investigation was handled that she decided not to renew her teaching contract at the end of the school year.
"This whole thing was mishandled...On the legal side of things, Paul Burke's lawsuit poses the district with a large liability. From our perspective as parents of students we don't want to see this sort of thing happen again, and we're using the electoral process to fix it."