GENEVA – The Geneva District 304 school board voted to discipline four teachers whom they say violated school policy on prohibited political activities, actions the Geneva Education Association condemn as an attempt to silence their First Amendment right of free speech.
After a closed session on April 22, the school board voted unanimously to issue letters called Notices to Remedy to Lisa Murphy, Jason Santo and Kimberley Hardt. After a closed session at a special meeting April 24, five voted to issue a Notice to Remedy to Cathy Fuller. Two new board members, Robert Cabeen and Alicia Saxton, both abstained, records show.
The Geneva Education Association supported Cabeen, Saxton and Katherine Frye, in the April 2 consolidated election, but Frye did not get elected.
School Board president Mark Grosso said the four teachers violated board policy by engaging in political activity on school property having to do with supporting three candidates endorsed by the teachers union for the April 2 school board election.
“It is a form of discipline," Grosso said. "After conducting an investigation regarding the violation of board policy, the administration submitted a recommendation, which would be the Notice to Remedy letter."
The investigation was based on a complaint from a community member alleging that the four teachers used district resources to conduct political activities, Grosso said.
“In the course of our investigating this allegation, we uncovered the fact that several teachers did conduct political activities. This was promoting their three candidates,” Grosso said. “They cannot do it on school property, period.”
The teachers were not suspended, nor was their pay docked and they did not request a hearing, Grosso said. The disciplinary letters warn them not to engage in the prohibited political activity again.
'An extreme overreaction'
In a prepared statement, Geneva Education Association President Kevin Gannon said the union was “deeply disappointed that the school board has chosen to issue Notices to Remedy to four of our members.”
“A Notice to Remedy, one of the most serious and long-term punishments that can be leveled against a teacher, is an extreme overreaction to the unintentional infraction of using a school mailbox to deliver sealed, unmarked material for a campaign, and it is an inappropriate method of restricting the free speech rights of public employees,” according to Gannon’s statement.
The Notices to Remedy open the teachers to immediate termination for “running afoul of any of the other school board policies outlined in the 400-plus-page school district policy manual,” according to Gannon’s statement. “To discipline teachers in this manner with dubious basis and to hold it over their heads for the rest of their careers is unnecessary and feels vindictive. … It’s hard to see this as anything besides an effort to silence the growing voice our teachers have in matters important to our education community.”
Gannon’s statement notes that the school board members who voted for the teacher disciplinary letters were also on the board during the district’s first-ever teacher strike last year.
“Exercising the First Amendment rights to engage in political speech at a public candidate forum is not prohibited political activity, and the district should rethink its attempts to silence the voices of the professionals who work most closely to ensure our students receive the high-quality education they deserve,” according to Gannon’s statement.
Gannon also defended the four teachers in his statement: “These four teachers all have exemplary service records, strong evaluation ratings, have illustrated impeccable professional conduct throughout their teaching careers and do remarkable things for their students each day.”
Grosso said Gannon misstated the long-term effect of the Notices to Remedy.
“He’s completely wrong,” Grosso said. “We have progressive discipline. A Notice to Remedy is not used in progressive discipline unless it’s the same charge, if they do that again. If they do something else, no.”
As an example, Grosso said if a teacher who received a Notice to Remedy for conducting political activities later is written up for calling in sick when he or she wasn’t, one has nothing to do with the other.
Cabeen said he and Saxton abstained because they was there when the incident alleged against Fuller occurred, and “it did not seem fair for us to vote.”
“At the junior high school, where had their candidate forum, after the event took place, the three endorsed candidate from the GEA had a further interview that was live-streamed,” Cabeen said. “That was all there was to it. Cathy Fuller was there, but did not participate. … It was not reasonable for us to pass judgment one way or the other. That’s why
Saxton did not return a voicemail message seeking comment.
See accompanying story for specific charges in the Notices to Remedy.