Ontario School District Superintendent Nikki Albisu was one of three top women officials to assert they were bullied and discriminated against by school board members. (File photo)
ONTARIO – Three top women administrators in the Ontario School District say they endured bullying and discrimination by school board members for months, describing in complaints discriminatory behavior they considered illegal.
The recently released complaints chronicle in detail the allegations that have prompted investigations, public censures of two board members and an impending public apology from the board. The school district has spent $80,000 so far on the investigations.
Previously undisclosed letters to two administrators for the first time provide a glimpse into those investigations and findings that certain board members had acted inappropriately.
Together, the documents provide a more detailed picture of the turmoil in the Ontario School District from fall 2020 through spring 2021, as tensions between the administrators and some board members played out month after month in public meetings. The developments strained relations in the district and in the community.
The documents place much of the blame on Derrick Draper, an Ontario businessman who quit the board earlier this year after it decided to censure him.
An investigator found that Draper treated women administrators in ways that were “unnecessarily combative, aggressive, loud, disrespectful, argumentative, and at times unreasonable,” according to a summary of the investigation.
The school board for months has attempted to keep from the public the complaints filed against some of its members by Nikki Albisu, district superintendent; Jodi Elizondo, Ontario High School principal; and Lisa Longoria, Ontario Middle School principal.
The board also had kept secret its letters earlier this year to Albisu and Longoria, spelling out the results of investigations.
The records from earlier this year were released to the Enterprise last week after the newspaper sued to obtain them under the state public records law.
The tone of the school board changed midyear with Draper’s departure and then the departure of Renae Corn, board chair during much of the tumult, who didn’t run for re-election. Their seats were taken by Matt Stringer, former executive director of Four Rivers Cultural Center, and Tom Greco, an Ontario pastor.
“Disrespectful and belligerent behavior and bullying are never acceptable in any human relationship,” said Greco, who is the new board chair. He addressed written questions from the Enterprise.
“I have great faith and trust our board will work together with our district leaders to do what is best for our children’s education and safety,” he said in his statement.
Eric Evans and Craig Geddes, two board members named in the complaints, declined comment on the newly-disclosed information. Albisu and Longoria didn’t respond to requests for comment. Elizondo said she would defer comment until the board acts on the public apology, scheduled to be read at the board meeting next Monday, Nov. 15.
The new information provides much of the missing context for the board’s cryptic decisions earlier this year in disciplining its own members, as well as new revelations about the behavior for which they were reprimanded and its effects:
ª Albisu’s complaint said that in February, she went on medical leave as a result of deterioration in her health due to the board’s conduct.
• The investigation into Longoria’s complaint substantiated her claim of gender discrimination by Draper.
• Elizondo submitted a tort claim with more than 25 incidents she said showed “gender discrimination which created a hostile work environment” from Draper, Evans and Geddes.
The documents trace the dissent to 2019, when an anonymous letter purporting to represent the views of 14 out of 18 Ontario school administrators called for Evans and Draper to resign or be censured due to what it said was a pattern of intimidation, harassment and civil rights violations.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, the district was plunged into conflict, with Evans threatening to sue for libel due to the contents of the letter. Later, he and Draper were exonerated after an investigation by an independent law firm.
The board declined to disclose that investigation report, leading then-Chair Mike Blackaby, an Ontario insurance broker, to resign in 2020.
Geddes replaced Blackaby on the board, and Corn became chair.
Despite the changes in personnel, board meetings continued to be contentious, filled with personal attacks and innuendo between the administration and board members.
Documents show that Albisu was first among the three administrators to bring a complaint to the Ontario School Board, doing so on Feb. 1. Albisu claimed that she had been retaliated against during her 2020 performance evaluation for her perceived involvement in the administrators’ 2019 complaint.
She also claimed gender discrimination by both Draper and Evans.
The board relied on a Salem law firm to investigate the complaints. That firm in turn hired a Portland law firm and its investigation into Albisu’s complaint found that Draper and Evans had violated one board policy by ranking Albisu noticeably lower on her 2020 evaluation.
That finding was included in a summary of the investigative report provided to Albisu in an April 23, 2021, letter. The board released the letter to the Enterprise last week.
“Multiple interviewees reported believing Draper and Evans are motivated by retaliatory animus,” according to investigation summary.
The investigation summary said that “Directors Evans and Draper did not discriminate or create a hostile work environment based on gender in violation of board policy; however, Director Draper demonstrated behavior indicative of gender bias.”
The investigation found that while Draper was combative with Albisu and other women administrators, he displayed similar aggressive behavior with men. His behavior, however, violated board policies, the investigation concluded.
Evans, the report said, did not typically treat people in the ways Draper did.
The investigation also found that Draper and Evans engaged in retaliation because they could not “move past their resentment” towards Albisu.
The investigation said Draper also violated the board’s own standards for conduct.
“The investigator found Draper often behaves in an unprofessional, combative, aggressive, accusatory, bullying and disrespectful manner toward Albisu,” the investigative summary said.
The findings resulted in a public censure by the board “condemning” the conduct of Draper and Evans. Draper walked out of the April 20 meeting where the motion was discussed before it could come to a vote.
In its censure motion, the school board agreed to take nondiscrimination training and engage in mediation with Albisu.
On March 12, Longoria submitted her complaint to the board, accusing Draper, Evans and Geddes of gender discrimination and harassment and contending her due process rights were violated.
She said the three board members at a board meeting just days earlier “cast doubts on my leadership abilities, competence and professional standing in the community and amongst my peers.”
Longoria said she wasn’t allowed to respond to their public comments.
“The message was clear: When the men are speaking, women are to listen in silence,” she wrote.
“I am deeply troubled by the gender imbalance on the board and how the men seated thereon regularly use this power imbalance to ignore, dismiss and disrespect our female board members, female administrators and female employees,” she said.
Longoria said that the March 8 board meeting represented a disturbing instance of being singled out publicly for activities in her private life. She referred to a Facebook post in which she shared that she and some of her peers were reading a book called Leading While Female.
“My out-of-work book study was weaponized and used to attack Superintendent Albisu’s leadership and disparage her character,” Longoria wrote in her complaint. “I retain the right to read and share reading materials in my personal life at my sole discretion. Director Draper’s remarks regarding this text were sexist, discriminatory and completely outside his purview.”
According to a May 28 letter from Corn to Longoria, the resulting investigation found that Draper’s reference to Longoria’s reading choice represented gender discrimination.
The letter said Draper, Evans and Geddes didn’t violate board policies in “making negative references” to a statement Longoria had provided the Argus Observer newspaper about reopening the middle school.
The board on May 24 voted to censure Draper and “condemn” his conduct towards Longoria.
Elizondo said in a tort claim she filed March 18 that she endured gender discrimination and a hostile work environment because of the actions of Draper, Evans and Geddes.
“In those two years there are approximately 45 documented incidents that directly affected my ability to perform my job duties,” she wrote.
Her complaint chronicled specific events from September 2020 through April 2021.
She said that at the March 8 board meeting, Draper, Evans and Geddes “harassed” her by sharing “false information.”
“Director Geddes made the false statement that the teacher turnover rate at the high school is higher than it should be,” Elizondo said. “This professional disparagement and doubt planted in the community makes it very difficult for me to perform my duties.”
She said Evans and Draper referred to a recording of a private high school staff meeting in a way that sent “the public message that I had somehow committed a violation, something that is professionally damaging.”
The results of the investigation into her complaint haven’t been disclosed, but the school board recently agreed to a settlement with Elizondo. She will get up to $2,000 to cover legal costs and will get a public apology. Evans and Geddes voted no.
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