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Non-renewal of principal's contract upheld by hearing examiner

MABTON - A hearing examiner has sustained the Mabton School District's decision to not renew former Artz-Fox Principal Fabian Castilleja's contract following the 2004-05 school year.

The decision was handed down yesterday, following a hearing in Mabton that lasted four days this past January. Castilleja, who was hired by the district in 2004, was allowed the proceeding under state statute.

Retired Judge Bob Alsdorf said in his decision that the school district bore the burden of proof in making its decision and that out of 10 listed individual areas of unsatisfactory job performance, nine were found to be sufficient for the district's decision.

Alsdorf determined there was no credible evidence that problems at the elementary school that Castilleja reported to Superintendent Sandra Pasiero-Davis led to any significant conflict between the two of them or otherwise gave Pasiero-Davis a motive for retaliatory action.

Those problems included counting retained kindergartners as first-graders, which allowed for more state funding and misallocation of reading grant funds slightly in excess of $6,000, which the school district had to pay back.

Castilleja's attorneys argued that Pasiero-Davis violated state statute by failing to meet with Castilleja until January 2005 to discuss goals.

Alsdorf noted that evidence indicated that Pasiero-Davis discussed four goals with Castilleja during that meeting and a month later, placed him on an improvement plan. In March that same year, she gave Castilleja an interim evaluation to discuss the four goals she'd listed in January. Two weeks later, Pasiero-Davis met with Castilleja to discuss his future at the district.

In his decision, Alsdorf said, "Although the testimony conflicted somewhat on this topic, the hearing officer has concluded, based on the credibility of the witnesses and the preponderance of evidence, that Supt. Pasiero-Davis made it clear in that conversation that she was dissatisfied with his performance and that she expected to recommend that Principal Castilleja's contract not be renewed."

He notes that the two met on several occasions in March and April 2005, but did not come to an agreement on Castilleja's future in the school district. By May 11, one day after giving him an unsatisfactory performance evaluation, she gave him notice of probable cause to not renew his contract.

Alsdorf said that prior to the arrival of Pasiero-Davis and Castilleja (both were hired in 2004), the evidence strongly suggested that the district was troubled and had significant difficulties in student discipline and staff and community morale. He noted that when this takes place, resolution isn't easy.

Alsdorf said that Castilleja's testimony concerning his professional duties were "thorough, well thought out, and persuasive." He also noted that Pasiero-Davis testified that he wasn't implementing those philosophies on a day to day basis.

In his decision, Alsdorf stated that there is substantial evidence of the district being dysfunctional prior to the 2004-05 school year and that evidence from both sides regarding reasons for the district's continued dysfunction were mixed.

Alsdorf said there is substantial evidence that Castilleja had the following problems and did not adequately remedy them in his administration: student discipline, teacher evaluations and teacher and staff morale.

Another problem Alsdorf cited was that Castilleja was late in complying with district expectations and standards relating to the reconciliation of accounts and the placement of purchase orders, but that Pasiero-Davis testified the problem was remedied by February. Alsdorf said the financial problems cited by the district weren't substantial or persistent enough to justify the decision to non-renew.

With regard to the district financial shortcomings Castilleja reported, Alsdorf determined there wasn't enough sufficient evidence to show there was a significant disagreement between him and Pasiero-Davis, "let alone a basis for him to claim whistleblower status or retaliatory discharge."

Alsdorf found Castilleja's failure to start the gifted program on time, failure to order second grade reading assessments and failure to properly handle time and effort sheets weren't persistent enough to justify the non-renewal.

With regard to retribution on the district's part, Alsdorf said there was sufficient evidence that staff and union members were requested to document information relating to Castilleja's job performance, but the investigative process, evidence gathering and reporting doesn't necessarily lead to an inference of improper motivation or conspiracy.

In fact, Alsdorf determined, had the district not done so, it could have been challenged for acting without sufficient evidence.

"There is no credible evidence in this case that Supt. Pasiero-Davis, or others acting on behalf of the district, engaged in any conspiracy against Principal Castilleja, either retaliatory, racial or otherwise," wrote Alsdorf.

With regard to racial discrimination, Alsdorf noted Castilleja didn't make those charges until it became clear Pasiero-Davis was going to recommend non-renewal, based on the evidence.

"There was no credible evidence that Supt. Pasiero-Davis was at any time in her dealings with Principal Castilleja motivated by, intimidated by, or acting upon racial or ethnic animus or hostility of her own or upon that which may be attributed to other teachers or other persons in the community."

According to Castilleja's attorney, Kerri Feeney, he now has the option to appeal the decision in Superior Court. Feeney didn't state if Castilleja planned to do so.

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