Charity Earley Girls Academy serves students from preschool through sixth grade. JEREMY P. KELLEY / STAFF

Fired teacher sues DPS; referee calls schools’ probe ‘woefully flawed’

A Dayton Public Schools teacher who was fired after 10 months on unpaid leave has sued the school district after a hearing referee called DPS’ investigation into her conduct “inadequate and woefully flawed.”

Jennifer Martcheva was a teacher at Charity Earley Girls Academy until she was placed on paid leave Oct. 3, 2018, then put on unpaid leave effective Nov. 16, with the school board considering termination.

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In the school district’s “notice of charges and specifications,” then-HR director Judith Spurlock wrote, “It is alleged that you verbally threaten to strangle a student for making you mad and (threaten to) bring a shotgun to school to shoot yourself due to student misbehavior. It is also alleged that you wanted to, if the student was your child, to whoop her so bad that you would be in jail.”

After a two-day hearing in March, referee John Butz issued a May 16 report saying he was “amazed by the rush to judgment” and that the evidence “does not support a finding that there is good and just cause to terminate Ms. Martcheva.”

Butz wrote that no one from DPS ever interviewed Martcheva, who categorically denied the allegations and said the students who made the claims had previously been disciplined by her.

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More than three months later, when Dayton’s school board had not yet held the legally required vote to accept or reject Butz’s report, Martcheva sued DPS in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court through attorney Peter Newman, seeking her reinstatement, back pay and benefits, and compensatory and punitive damages totaling more than $1 million.

In early September, Judge Mary Montgomery denied Martcheva’s request for a quick injunction, so the legal case continues, with the next filing deadline set for Oct. 25.

On Sept. 17, the school board acted, voting to reject the referee’s decision on Martcheva. More than two weeks later, the school board has not posted the text of the resolution the board voted on, as it does with most documents.

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On Thursday, Newman provided a copy of that resolution, which argues against many of the referee’s findings. It also says the school board terminated Martcheva’s contract via that vote, although that fact was not announced at the meeting.

DPS Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said this week that the district will not comment on personnel matters.

Allegations, confusion

In her lawsuit, Martcheva alleges that Charity Earley Principal Karla Goins “orchestrated” the ousting of her and a fellow teacher who had questioned DPS’ decision to change principals, bringing in Goins. She also claims Goins, who is black, wanted an all-black staff. Martcheva and the fellow teacher, Kelli Vukovic Burkhardt, are white.

Martcheva claimed Goins repeatedly monitored her class without offering feedback and pushed for a formal evaluation although one wasn’t required, leading to tense exchanges. As a result, Martcheva and Vukovic Burkhardt filed a harassment complaint last fall.

Four days later, a parent told Goins that an unnamed teacher had made the strangle-a-student and bring-a-shotgun threats. Based in part on comments from another teacher, Goins and assistant principal America Henson went to Human Resources, and Vukovic Burkhardt was put on leave that afternoon, the lawsuit says.

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But later that same day, according to the referee’s report, the parent’s daughter said it was actually Martcheva who had made the statements. The next day, Goins and Henson interviewed five other students the first girl had mentioned, and two made similar claims.

Martcheva was put on leave near the end of the next school day, but was only told vaguely at the time that the allegations involved her mentioning guns in class. Martcheva immediately told union officials that she discussed guns, hunting and rural life in a social studies unit.

“Flawed” investigation

Butz’s report says Henson testified that “you want to get all sides of the story,” in such a case, but that she didn’t speak to Martcheva because “I wasn’t directed to.” The report said Goins turned the issue over to HR, saying, “That’s not my job to find out, you know, the truth.”

Butz wrote that LaToya Harper, then a district human resources executive, said HR deferred to the Safety and Security department to preserve the integrity of the investigation.

But Butz said Safety and Security “had almost no role whatsoever in the investigation as (Tracy) Hines’ Investigative Summary merely paraphrased the contents of the statements that Ms. Goins and Ms. Henson had collected. Not a single administrator or district employee interviewed Ms. Martcheva personally about the allegations against her.”

Court case issues

Despite all that, there’s no guarantee Martcheva will win her lawsuit. In Judge Montgomery’s ruling on the injunction request, she wrote that Martcheva had not “demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of her petition for a writ of mandamus.”

Newman said now that the school board has rejected the referee’s report, he will have to file an amended lawsuit, following Ohio law’s procedure for appealing that decision.

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“This is a school board that wrongfully terminated someone based on a far-fetched story from a fourth-grader and they never bothered to ask the teacher her side of the story,” Newman said. “Then when she wins her case before the referee, they drag their feet for four months to vote (and reject his decision). A sign of good leadership is when you admit you made a mistake and you correct it. That’s what the board should have done.”

Montgomery wrote that Martcheva and the school board had been in settlement negotiations in August, but reached impasse when the school board offered $30,000 in exchange for Martcheva waiving her right to reinstatement and signing a release of all claims. Newman said Martcheva is now teaching at a local charter school.

Dayton teachers union President David Romick said the union’s attorney represented Martcheva in her March hearings with the district, but is not representing her in the lawsuit.

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Romick said usually, if the school board accepts a hearing officer’s report backing the employee, the parties settle on back pay and benefits, and the teacher gets a job back. But if the board rejects the report, that decision can be appealed in court.

“I really don’t have any comment,” Romick said of Martcheva’s specific case. “We followed through with the hearing. The referee’s report from the hearing speaks for itself.”

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