CHARLESTON – An order was filed in a 2014 lawsuit involving the Lincoln County Board of Education and a teacher participating in the Transition to Teaching program.

Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey affirmed the West Virginia Public Employees Grievance Board’s Oct. 15, 2014, decision, according to the order filed Jan. 13 in Kanawha Circuit Court.

“It is not the role of this Court to substitute its judgment for that of the West Virginia Public Employees Grievance Board,” the order states.

Upon due consideration of the grievance board’s findings of facts and credibility determination, as well as their conclusions of law, the court found no reversible error was committed, according to the order.

“The Grievance Board was not clearly wrong when finding that the petitioner failed to meet its burden by a preponderance of the evidence,” the order states.

Accordingly, the court denied the petition for appeal and affirmed the decision of the West Virginia Public Employees Grievance Board. The matter was dismissed and stricken from the open docket of the court.

Kelli Burns became a teacher through the West Virginia’s Transition to Teaching program, which is an alternative teacher certification program that worked with targeted school districts to place and certify qualifying participants in the classroom.

The program trains professionals to transition from other employment into public school teaching by taking classes, attending training and meetings and collaborating with other members of a given cohort.

On Oct. 4, 2010, Burns was hired as a regular English teacher with the Lincoln County Board of Education to teach at Harts Intermediate and Belinda Toney, the principal for that school year, found Burns’ performance to be satisfactory or above.

The next year, Deborah Dingess was the principal at the school and she conducted her first formal observation of Burns’ classroom on Oct. 17, 2011, to which she determined that Burns was unsatisfactory in classroom climate, instructional management systems, student progress, professional work habits and technology standards.

In November 2011, Dingess met with Burns to discuss complaints that was received from parents of some students who were upset because Burns was allegedly discussing inappropriate subject matter with students and in December 2011, after only conducting one classroom observation, Dingess met with Burns and Sid Fragale, an American Federation of Teachers representative, for the purpose of placing Burns on an improvement plan.

Fragale informed Dingess that she could not place Burns on an improvement plan without first giving her an evaluation and the parties agreed that the “proposed” improvement plan, would be treated as an informal remediation plan.

On Dec. 6, 2011, immediately after making an improper attempt to place Burns on an improvement plan, Dingess conducted a second formal observation of her classroom and, once again, documented that Burns had issues with classroom climate, instructional management systems, student progress, professional work habits and technology standards and discussed this observation with her on Dec. 12, 2011.

Dingess conducted a third formal observation and found that Burns had issues with classroom climate, instructional management systems and student progress and put her on a second improvement plan that would be in effect for the remainder of the school year.

Dingess did not conduct another observation until May 22, 23 and 29, 2012, and each time she found that Burns was unsatisfactory in programs of study, classroom climate, instructional management systems, student progress, professional work habits and technology standards.

Because of what Burns perceived to be unfair treatment and scrutiny by Dingess, and in an effort to make a fresh start with a new principal, Burns successfully bid on an opening in an English/Language Arts position at Guyan Valley Middle School for the following school year.

Burns claims the principal of GVMS chose to exclude her from a new pilot program for the implementation of a new method of teacher evaluation that was ultimately adopted statewide and the principal, Jonah Adkins, informed her that she would be subject to the second improvement plan prepared by Dingess.

On Aug. 29, 2012, Adkins observed Burns’ classroom and documented issues with classroom climate, instructional management systems and professional work habits and again observed her classroom on Sept. 20, 2012, and documented issues with programs of study, classroom climate and instructional management systems.

On Jan. 9, 2013, Adkins wrote Burns a formal letter of reprimand, citing her failure to produce written lesson plans when asked for them and on Jan. 14, 2013, he conducted a third observation and documented issues with program of study, classroom climate, instructional management systems, student progress and technology standards.

By letter dated Jan. 25, 2013, the superintendent of Lincoln County Schools notified Burns that she was suspended without pay due to her failure to improve and reach satisfactory levels of performance in accordance to two formal improvement plans.

The letter further notified Burns that the superintendent was recommending the termination of her contract of employment with the county.

A pre-disciplinary hearing on the recommendations was held Feb. 21, 2013, March 2, 2013, and March 7, 2013, and on the last day, by a unanimous vote, the board ratified and approved the suspension and termination of Burns’ employment based on information of poor performance and a failure to improve.

Burns then filed a grievance with the Public Employees’ Grievance Board and, after four days of evidentiary testimony, the grievance board granted the grievance and ordered that she be reinstated with backpay, seniority and benefits.

The Board of Education then appealed the grievance board’s decision.

Kanawha Circuit Court case number: 14-AA-110

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