VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) — The top administrator of one of Virginia's largest school districts is complaining he faces a hostile work environment from two board members who this summer opposed extending his contract.
The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk reports that Virginia Beach Schools Superintendent Aaron Spence filed a complaint claiming he experienced "abusive conduct" from the two members of the board overseeing the state's fourth-largest schools division.
Spence targets school board members Victoria Manning and Laura Hughes, who two months ago voted against adding a year to the superintendent's contract worth more than $257,000 annually. Hughes said the superintendent wasn't pleased with a performance evaluation that she completed for him.
Spence wrote in an emailed statement Friday he believes he faces an unprofessional environment that doesn't respect his work.
The Virginia Beach School Board discussed his July 18 grievance against members Victoria Manning and Laura Hughes in private on Aug. 13, according to the letter sent by the members' attorney to the city's lawyers.
But Manning, Hughes and another member, Carolyn Weems, say the closed session violated the state's open meeting laws. Manning and Hughes also believe Spence filed a complaint because he was unhappy with a performance evaluation and social media posts from the two board members.
Spence "complained to School Board Chairwoman Beverly Anderson that he was of the belief that he had been the victim of certain objectionable conduct that he described as constituting a hostile work environment," according to the letter sent Wednesday by attorney Kevin Martingayle, who represents Manning, Hughes and Weems. The letter was given to the School Board, the city attorney and his two deputies, including Kamala Lannetti. No more details about Spence's complaint were included in the letter.
The School Board, which in 2014 appointed Spence as superintendent of the region's largest school division, is in charge of approving and evaluating his contract.
Two months ago, members voted 8-3 to give him a one-year extension until 2023. His current agreement calls for a base salary of about $257,200 as of July 1, and he received $12,500 in compensation for work performed last fiscal year. Manning, Hughes and Weems opposed the contract extension.
"I have the right to expect to be treated with professionalism and with respect by the School Board that supervises my work and that at a minimum, the same expectations we have for other employees ... would apply to me," Spence wrote in an emailed statement to The Pilot on Friday. "I did not allege abusive conduct on the part of any Board member. I did, however, note my belief that the expectations that the Board has outlined in its Employee Handbook were violated and had created an environment that was unprofessional and not respectful of my work."
When the Aug. 13 meeting minutes were up for approval on Aug. 27, Manning, Hughes and Weems voted against signing off on them since they believed it should have been a public hearing, Manning said.
The criteria was not met to make the discussion private, Hughes said.
"This meeting seems to have been a personal attack on me and Vicky Manning," she said. "It does appear that over time, closed meetings have been used to attack board members who don't agree with the majority. So this was just the last straw."
Martingayle's letter claims Spence "does not qualify, and is specifically excluded, as being an employee of the School Board" and therefore does not have the right to formally bring the grievance forward. Virginia Beach Schools FOIA Officer John Sutton declined to provide a copy of Spence's July 18 grievance because it is exempt under state law regarding employee and personnel records.
"I have written a letter to Kamala Lannetti complaining about what we believe are open meeting rule violations," Martingayle said.
Lannetti said the hearing was justifiably closed on Aug. 13 because state law allows for matters involving employees of public bodies or issues regarding job performance to be private, according to the Aug. 27 School Board meeting minutes.
Hughes said Spence brought a complaint against her and two against Manning at the Aug. 13 hearing. He was not pleased with a performance evaluation that Hughes had completed for him, she said.
"He and I are clearly in disagreement as to what exactly the evaluation should have been, but he has no fundamental right to a perfect evaluation," she said. "Nobody does."
Hughes said the superintendent previously complained about her evaluation of him and read a statement in an earlier closed session. She could not recall when the meeting occurred.
"I don't think that my opinion of his policies and his viewpoints and his vision and direction for the school system constitute a hostile work environment," she said.
"I think people can disagree without being hostile."
Spence disputed the assessment of his job performance and wrote in his statement that a board member who had served for less than six months gave him the lowest rating on all seven categories by which he is evaluated. He added that "there was little concrete evidence to support the ratings" and none of the concerns had been previously shared with him.
"We expect our supervisors to communicate with those they evaluate," he wrote. "That didn't happen here."
Manning said Spence's accusations against her were unfounded, over-inflated and have no merit. The complaints involved posts she and others made on her social media accounts, but she declined to specify which ones were brought up in the closed meeting. Hughes said two of Manning's posts were discussed during that gathering.
"I've done nothing wrong," Manning said. "I also think this could be retaliation for me revealing things that may not be positive about the district."
Manning has questioned the school division's discipline and grading practices, as well as Spence's travel and employment relationship with ERDI, a company that organizes panels of educational leaders and vendors to sell academic products. The school division's audit office completed a two-month investigation that found no wrongdoing concerning Spence's employment opportunities outside of his role as superintendent in November 2018.
Spence's statement also referred to a board member who had created a public forum in which he was "regularly demeaned," and he pointed to an accusation "from a member of the community" that implied he was engaged in inappropriate behavior. He said the board member did not refute the statement made on the forum.
"I don't believe I or my family should be subjected to this kind of demeaning conduct made possible by a member of the Board that employs me," he wrote.
Martingayle said he had a conversation with Lannetti on Thursday about how the School Board could better work together in the future.
"We made that the mutual goal," he said, adding another meeting needs to take place between his three clients and a School Board representative to discuss the issues that "led us to a conflict."
The letter lists suggestions for "solving this outside of the litigation process." Some of those recommendations:
The School Board should agree that Spence is not an employee of the board and is not legally entitled to a grievance hearing before the entity.
The School Board should admit that the closed meeting violated Virginia's FOIA law.
No draft resolutions would be prepared for a closed meeting without a vote.
The board should acknowledge that it "respects the free speech and expression rights" of all members and "shall not attempt to discipline" them in any way that infringes on those rights.
If the dispute can't be resolved, the three board members may file a lawsuit claiming FOIA laws were violated, according to Martingayle's letter.
"The goal here is not to embarrass the School Board," Hughes said. "The goal here is to stop bad behavior."
Board members Kimberly Melnyk, Dan Edwards, Sharon Felton and Carolyn Rye declined to comment. Dottie Holtz, Jessica Owens and Trenace Riggs did not return calls.
Anderson, the board's chairwoman, said she could not talk about the grievance and Martingayle's letter.
"We may have to call an emergency meeting, but it won't be before Monday," she said. "This is a board issue. It's not a one-person issue."
In his statement, Spence said that he deserved to "work in an environment that is respectful of my experience as an educator and that assigns to me the courtesy and professionalism due any employee."
"It seems as though the three Board members who retained Mr. Martingayle do not feel I should have the opportunity to express these concerns. ... I find it disconcerting, at best, that confidential personnel matters, including those certified as such by these Board members — especially matters discussed during my evaluation — have been made a matter of public record."
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com