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School district completes final chapter in severing ties with two S’side teachers

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Maria Preston

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Sacha Mike

A teacher the Sunnyside School District has been attempting to sever ties with for just over a year tendered her resignation last week.

Maria Preston’s letter of resignation was formally accepted by the Sunnyside School Board last Friday at a specially called meeting.

Preston and Sacha Mike, English department instructors at Sunnyside High School, came under public scrutiny in October of last year following complaints by students, some of their parents and a select few community members about the teaching methods of the two women. Specifically, objections were raised to what were described as inappropriate and sexually explicit materials being introduced to students in the teachers’ classrooms. The teachers also came under fire for allegedly allowing, or even encouraging, discussions in their classrooms that were termed offensive, vulgar and profane.

Mike relinquished her teaching position with the school district in late February of this year, resigning after reaching a settlement agreement with district officials. As part of that agreement she continued to get paid her full salary, with all benefits, from Oct. 5, 2012 - the day she was pulled from her classroom and placed on administrative leave – through Aug. 31, 2013. The school district also agreed to award Mike a lump sum payment of just over $50,000 at the end of September of this year, and will continue to pay her monthly health insurance premiums through the remainder of the 2013-14 school year.

In reaching a settlement agreement last Friday with Preston, who hadn’t returned to her classroom since being placed on administrative leave in early October last year but was still drawing full pay and benefits, school district officials consented to paying her $100,000. That money will be paid to Preston in three monthly payments, starting this month.

With four of the five Sunnyside School Board directors in attendance last Friday, the settlement agreement with Preston was approved unanimously. The fifth school board member, Michelle Perry, was unable to attend the hastily called meeting, and arranged for an excused absence from her fellow directors.

In tallying the costs to sever ties with the two teachers, Sunnyside Schools Superintendent Dr. Rick Cole said the district expended a total of $317,688. That figure, said Cole, takes into account the two teachers’ salaries and benefits while they were out of their classrooms on administrative leave, the lump sum “settlement” payments and approximately $30,000 for the services of attorneys who arranged for the severance packages.

Not factored in are the salaries of the instructors who filled in for Preston and Mike after they were removed from their classrooms, nor the cost of the private investigation that was commissioned by district officials.

Also not part of the $317,688 figure are the costs the school district incurred as the result of a public records request concerning the actions of the two teachers. Those expenses included securing legal representation to defend the district’s interpretation of releasing public documents, and a $50,000 settlement with the Daily Sun News, which eventually was successful in securing the documents in question.

Of the entire costs for the school district to sever ties with the two teachers, only about $30,000 is covered by the district’s insurance provider.

Cole said most of the expenses incurred by the school district will be paid for with monies in the reserve fund.

Despite the mounting, unanticipated expenses, Cole said none of the district’s programs or services currently being provided will be affected.

Cole said had settlement agreements not been reached with the two teachers, which would have forced the district to proceed with litigation in attempting to show probable cause for discharge, the school district could have been looking at costs in the $500,000 to $600,000 range.

Besides having to come up with $100,000 as part of the settlement agreement with Preston, the school district was pressed into withdrawing the letter of probable cause for discharge that Cole sent the teacher in late May of this year. Among the conclusions Cole cited in that letter were charges that Preston created a sexually charged classroom environment; singled out male students for in-class recitation of profane, sexual and offensive readings; violated the district’s sexual harassment policy; and allowed and encouraged students to refer to one another in vulgar and profane terms.

Officially, the settlement agreement approved last Friday states “…after additional consideration, the termination was too harsh, considering (the) employee’s good record as a teacher in the district, the written warning that was given to (the) employee and (the) employee’s consistently expressed, sincere acknowledgment that a limited amount of the materials she used in her curriculum were inappropriate for high school students, and constituted discreet incidents of poor judgment on her part.”

The letter of probable cause for discharge, as well as a separate letter sent to Preston early in May of this year, are to be placed in files separate from Preston’s employee file, and are to be destroyed three years from now, according to terms of the settlement agreement.

District officials also agreed to provide Preston a letter of reference, which Cole already has done. The letter states Preston received satisfactory evaluations in all of the years she taught in Sunnyside, but does note the school district acted to terminate her, adding that after additional consideration the district withdrew those proceedings based on Preston’s good record as a teacher.

Cole added that in the agreement with Preston, the Sunnyside School District admits to no errors, nor assumes any liability as the result of what has taken place in dealing with these issues.

‑ Bob Story can be contacted at 509-837-4500, or email BStory@DailySunNews.com

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