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Poway Unified fires its superintendent for allegedly interfering in investigation related to her daughter – San Diego Union-Tribune

Poway Unified fires its superintendent for allegedly interfering in investigation related to her daughter – San Diego Union-Tribune
Poway Unified fires its superintendent for allegedly interfering in investigation related to her daughter – San Diego Union-Tribune

Phelps had requested the investigation and demanded information from district staff about the ongoing investigation, Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff, president of the Poway Unified School Board, wrote in a letter to Phelps in April explaining her dismissal. Phelps also lied by claiming she did not request an investigation, made no threats against students and did not interfere in the investigation, O’Connor-Ratcliff said.

The exact reasons for Phelps’ firing remained unclear for months. The school district has refused to disclose the results of an investigation it commissioned into a years-long controversy surrounding the Del Norte High School softball program, where Phelps’ daughter Jessica played. Coaches and parents had alleged that Phelps bullied softball players for not clapping loudly enough for Jessica at a banquet last year. Phelps has denied those allegations.

The reasons for her dismissal and details of the misconduct she is accused of have now been made public in a lawsuit filed by Phelps’ attorneys with the school district on June 12. She plans to sue for more than $1 million in damages, alleging breach of contract, misrepresentation of herself and other allegations.

“These statements were enormously damaging to (Phelps’) reputation and her future employment prospects because her spotless record was tarnished beyond recognition by comments that were inconsistent with the evidence,” the lawsuit says of public statements made by the board since her firing.

This is Phelps’ second lawsuit against the district in two weeks. She asked a judge on May 30 to reverse her termination and to block publication to the San Diego Union-Tribune of the reasons for her termination, which were disclosed in her new damages lawsuit.

On April 23, seven days before the Poway Unified School Board fired Phelps for cause, O’Connor-Ratcliff had written a seven-page letter outlining all of the reasons for the proposed dismissal. Phelps’s lawsuit for damages included the letter as evidence.

The letter included a summary of Phelps’ alleged conduct based on an investigation into the Del Norte softball controversy that the school board commissioned from outside law firm Dannis Woliver Kelley.

Phelps’ records refute the allegations made in this letter.

“Not only does the (letter) fail to set forth conduct that would justify termination, but it also does not rely on a sufficient factual basis to establish misconduct,” Phelps’ attorney Gregory Rolen wrote in a legal opinion in response in April.

Bullying allegations and a banquet

At the heart of the controversy was a conflict between Phelps’ daughter, Jessica Phelps, and a Del Norte High College softball teammate who is referred to in school district documents by her initials “LR.”

Phelps’ lawsuit alleges that LR and her mother bullied and harassed Jessica for many months, suggesting that their motives were that Jessica enjoyed privileges as the daughter of the school’s principal.

Phelps claimed that LR persuaded other members of the softball team not to applaud Jessica when she received the Most Valuable Player award at the banquet last May, causing Jessica to burst into tears afterward. Another teammate later told Phelps that they did not applaud “to show solidarity with LR,” according to Phelps’ claim.

Phelps called that teammate later that evening. According to the district’s investigation, during that call – which occurred after 11 p.m. and lasted at least a half hour – Phelps threatened that those senior players would not go to graduation.

Days later, Del Norte High School launched an investigation led by the school’s athletic director, Amanda Waters-Nelson, and an assistant principal, according to Phelps’ statement. According to her statement, the school’s investigation found that LR had engaged in bullying and harassment, and the school’s administration gave her a disciplinary contract, which she eventually signed.

“Please conduct an investigation”

Phelps claims that LR’s parents orchestrated a social media retaliation campaign that culminated in public comments against her at board meetings.

She argues that the school board was kowtowing to an “angry mob” by firing her, and points to the attention of conservative political groups that were already opposing her efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the district.

But according to O’Connor-Ratcliff’s letter, Phelps’ dismissal had nothing to do with external pressure. Rather, Phelps used her status from the beginning to influence the school’s investigation, O’Connor-Ratcliff wrote.

“You have used your position as superintendent to obstruct the (Del Norte High School) investigation from beginning to end,” O’Connor-Ratcliff wrote in the letter explaining her dismissal.

According to the letter, Phelps had asked the school’s athletic director, Waters-Nelson, to open the investigation in the first place. Phelps told her in a text message, “I need you to please do an investigation into (LR). I hear every day that she continues to talk trash about my child… I have a list of names of children you can interview.”

The district’s letter states that Phelps instructed Waters-Nelson not to tell anyone that she requested the investigation and asked Waters-Nelson to provide her with details of the ongoing investigation, including statements from witnesses interviewed. Phelps also asked Waters-Nelson to read her the draft of the investigation report before it was finalized and requested changes to some of the findings and recommendations, the district said.

Later, as the district conducted its own investigation, Phelps asked Waters-Nelson if she had kept her text messages, Phelps said in her court filing last month. Waters-Nelson told Phelps that she had and she turned them over to the district investigator.

O’Connor-Ratcliff said Phelps also told district administration what disciplinary action she wanted against LR, including suspension or transfer to another school, and that administration told Phelps that was not appropriate.

Phelps told a district administrator that the situation with LR could lead to litigation and demanded that the administrator give her copies of all related documents because, as superintendent, she needed to see those documents, according to O’Connor-Ratcliff. Administrators reported that they complied with Phelps’ demands out of fear of retaliation.

O’Connor-Ratcliff told Phelps that she had violated several board policies, including those regarding conflicts of interest, appropriate interactions between adults and students, and professional conduct.

“Your conduct as noted above is unacceptable, unprofessional, intolerable, immoral, and warrants your termination for cause,” O’Connor-Ratcliff wrote. “To avoid conflicts of interest… you must maintain the line between your role as superintendent and your role as a parent, and you are prohibited from crossing that line and abusing your role and authority as superintendent in matters related only to your role as a parent.”

“Even worse,” O’Connor-Ratcliff said, Phelps lied repeatedly for months about her involvement in the matter. The letter said Phelps’ actions, which came to light through the investigation, contradicted her repeated public statements that she never threatened a student, never asked the school to open an investigation and never used her position to obstruct the school’s investigation.

“The panel’s independent investigation recently found that your statements and denials were all false,” O’Connor-Ratcliff wrote.

O’Connor-Ratcliff said Phelps also violated a Nov. 15 board order not to use district resources to explain, defend or otherwise discuss the softball controversy.

Later that evening, Phelps sent an email to all district employees defending herself and accusing public commenters of defamation. “In my 32 years in education, I have always worked passionately to protect the safety and well-being of the children we serve. My leadership, actions and decisions are guided by a high level of ethics and integrity,” Phelps wrote.

Phelps’ defense

In a brief she sent to the district on April 29 in response to O’Connor-Ratcliff’s notice of intent to fire her, Phelps denied the allegations and suggested she was misled by district staff and board members during the investigation.

She said O’Connor-Ratcliff told her she could speak to the media and the district spokesperson insisted she email staff to “restore trust.” She said another trustee told her the district’s investigation would not be about her.

Phelps said Waters-Nelson “portrayed” herself as a friend and that’s why she vented to her. In her brief to the district, Phelps insists that she did not request an investigation or instruct Waters-Nelson not to disclose anything, and that the district misrepresented Phelps’ text messages to Waters-Nelson.

The brief denies that Phelps threatened to strip the players of their graduation privileges, ordered Waters-Nelson to read the draft investigation report or influenced the awarding of a disciplinary contract to LR.

Phelps said she was not given the opportunity to comment on the allegations that led to her firing when she was questioned as part of the district’s investigation.

And her lawyers argue that her conduct did not meet the legal standards of the listed reasons for termination.

If the district denies Phelps’ new claim for damages, she plans to sue.