Former Eagleton Elementary principal sues Blount school officials
By Matthew Stewart | (email@example.com)
Eagleton Elementary School’s former principal has sued the Blount County Board of Education and Director of Schools Rob Britt for allegedly exceeding their legal authority.
Debra Garren was placed on administrative leave with pay on Dec. 11 while system-level administrators investigated allegations of neglect of duty and unprofessional conduct.
She filed a lawsuit Monday in Blount County Chancery Court. Britt declined to comment, because it is pending litigation.
Garren, who served as the Eagleton Elementary’s principal for 2½ years, was informed Feb. 14 about the investigation’s outcome. Britt suspended the principal without pay for three days, placed a letter of reprimand in her personnel file and demoted her.
Garren later requested a conference with Britt, and the pair met March 4, according to the lawsuit. Britt notified her in a letter dated March 11 that the original discipline wouldn’t be modified.
The educator alleges that Britt exceeded his legal authority by simultaneously suspending and demoting her. State law allows a school director to impose a “disciplinary suspension” upon a tenured teacher for “a period of three days or less and that is not made in anticipation of dismissal.”
Garren alleges that Britt’s actions resulted in discipline that exceeded the three-day maximum suspension. She contends that the school district’s actions weren’t in compliance with state law, and her demotion was “arbitrary and capricious.”
Garren has requested that a writ of certiorari be served upon Britt and the school board, requiring them to answer and transmit the entire record of all proceedings. She also requested a trial at the earliest practical date, so the court can reverse and set aside the school district’s decision and reinstate her as a principal with payment of her full salary.
According to the school district’s Feb. 14 reprimand, the allegations against Garren included:
• Spending an excessive amount of time off campus during the school day in the company of Blount County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Rick Baker, the school resource officer, for reasons that “may be outside the scope” of her principal duties;
• Behaviors that “may compromise” her effectiveness as principal, such as “always or frequently being seen with or in the company of the SRO in the school building, not being accountable to (her) staff, students and parents and a general lack of communication and leadership at the school.”
Baker later resigned from the Blount County Sheriff’s Office and accepted a position at the Roane County Sheriff’s Office.
School officials provided Garren with the opportunity to answer questions related to the allegations, both in person and in writing, the letter said. After reviewing those responses and considering the internal investigation’s evidence, Britt noted “irregularities and concerns” with the principal’s actions and responses.
Garren admitted to leaving campus multiple times with Baker to perform school business, the letter said. Britt advised that the pair was seen leaving campus or observed off-campus at least 31 times between July 31, 2012 and Nov. 20, 2012. Of these off-campus trips made in Baker’s car, the director noted that Garren could only account for 21 home visits on 11 days.
The principal stated that they went to Walmart, grocery stores and food pantries, the letter said. However, she didn’t produce any documentation or offer explanation about the reason for Baker’s presence.
Britt concluded that it was an excessive amount of time to be off campus. He found Garren’s actions to be “irresponsible, alarming and neglectful.”
“Taking the two most visible leaders off campus for 31 days exposed your faculty, staff and students to potential conditions that are less than ideal, as it relates to safety,” Britt said. “Your reoccurring absences from school during this period further compromised your ability to properly supervise your staff and students and effectively lead your school.”
The director later documented the pair’s presence at two reward parties: Chick-fil-A on Oct. 4, 2012 and Chuck E. Cheese’s in Knoxville on Nov. 20, 2012. He questioned the principal’s priorities and decision-making and noted potential safety risks.
Baker and Garren were also observed eating lunch at Subway at least 12 times, the letter said. Britt advised that it was an excessive amount of visits in a short amount of time, especially when the pair should have been supervising students at school.
System-level administrators reported that the school’s staff was concerned about the amount of time that Baker and Garren were spending together, the letter said. They recorded concerns about a lack of leadership and communication, loss of vision and difficulty in gaining access to the principal.
Britt concluded that Garren had neglected her principal duties. She was reassigned to Friendsville Elementary School as a reading intervention teacher.