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Regional & National Education

Weber City Elementary principal, Scott schools settle sexual harassment, retaliation suit

October 30th, 2013 11:40 pm by Wes Bunch

Weber City Elementary principal, Scott schools settle sexual harassment, retaliation suit

former Scott County Schools Superintendent Greg Baker

A sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit filed by a Scott County public schools principal against the school board and several of its current and former members was settled out of court this week for an undisclosed amount.

 The settlement came after a federal judge declined to issue a summary judgment on two of the three counts laid out in Weber City Elementary School Principal Kellie Johnson’s lawsuit against the Scott County School Board, board Chairman James Kay Jessee and former board members Beth Blair, Lowell S. Campbell and Dennis Templeton.

 The case was set to go before a jury in federal court in Big Stone Gap on Nov. 4.

Johnson’s lawsuit  —  which sought a total of $800,000 in damages  —  centered around her employment in 2011 as assistant superintendent under former Scott County Schools Superintendent Greg Baker, who was also previously employed as the Scott County School Board attorney.

 Baker held the superintendent’s position from January until May 2011, when he resigned due to what he described as “health problems.”

Johnson claimed in her lawsuit that she was sexually harassed and subjected to a hostile work environment during her time working under Baker. Johnson also claimed she received a demotion and salary reduction after coming forward with her complaints.

Following the settlement, which was agreed upon Monday, Johnson’s attorney, Jerry Gray, said he and his client hoped the board would avoid taking action in the future that could leave them open to a lawsuit.

 “We regret that our client was forced to seek legal redress for improper actions on the part of the Scott County School Board and its former superintendent, Mr. Baker,” Gray said. “We are hopeful that this school board will act more responsibly in the future and avoid similar lawsuits.

 “Public bodies should be wary of hiring individuals with a checkered past; specifically, they hired Mr. Baker, who had exhibited serious character problems in the past, and certain members of the school board blatantly engaged in political pressure to obtain certification for him for a position that he was clearly not qualified to hold. This is evidenced by this lawsuit and the very short term of Mr. Baker as superintendent.”

 Bristol, Va. attorney Edward G. Stout also served as Johnson’s counsel.

 A statement from the Scott County School System regarding the matter was released Wednesday by Abingdon attorney W. Brad Stallard.

“The claims filed against the Scott County School Board by former assistant superintendent Kellie Johnson have been satisfactorily resolved,” the statement read. “The decision to settle these claims was made by the School Board’s insurer, which had the right to do so under the School Board’s liability insurance policy.

“Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the School Board expressly denied any fault, liability or responsibility for those claims, and we believe that had the case proceeded to trial, the School Board would have been exonerated from any wrongdoing. We will now put the matter to rest and move forward.”

 Attorney P. Danielle Stone also represented the school system.

 The amount of the settlement has not been made public. School officials said any money involved in the settlement would be paid by the school system’s insurance and not come from its operating budget.
In an opinion and ruling issued Oct. 28, U.S. District Court Judge James P. Jones ruled that Johnson’s lawsuit could proceed to trial on the claims of sexual harassment and retaliation.

Jones did, however, issue a summary judgment on Johnson’s claim that her right of equal protection was violated, writing that there was no evidence to support the allegation that Baker was hired “with the intent of purpose of discriminating against Johnson or other female employees.”

Court documents filed as part of the lawsuit contained hundreds of pages of sworn deposition that shed some light on Baker’s brief tenure as superintendent. The list of those deposed as part of the case includes Baker, Johnson, Jessee, Campbell, Blair, Templeton and former school board member Kathy McClelland, among others.

In a transcription of his sworn deposition, Baker admitted to using his school board-issued mobile phone on several occasions to make calls to paid phone sex hotlines.

Baker at first denied having ever made phone calls of that type before being confronted with several phone numbers and names. Baker admitted a short time after hearing five different adult entertainment numbers that he had placed the calls.

“I have called a phone sex line before,” Baker said in the deposition.

When questioned about making the calls on a school-issued line, Baker said “It could have been, yes.”

The calls mentioned in the deposition were reportedly made on work days, both in the morning and afternoon hours. One of the calls lasted for seven minutes, while others were anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes in duration.

A Freedom of Information Act request seeking Baker’s cell phone records for his time as superintendent was still pending late Wednesday night.

A school official with knowledge of the phone records said the system was never reimbursed by Baker for the calls.

Baker also said in his deposition that he felt Johnson also initiated inappropriate conduct with him while he was superintendent.

Depositions given by several others, including Johnson, made mention of texts with inappropriate sexual content she was sent by Baker. One specific text contained in Johnson’s deposition said that Baker wanted to take her “drinking and dancing and .......!!! 3 things I’m great at.”

The court documents also shed some light on the circumstances surrounding Baker’s appointment as superintendent and how things unfolded toward the end of his time in Scott County.

In her deposition, McClelland  —  the only former school board member to vote against Baker’s appointment when it came before the board in 2010  —  said she expressed concern to her colleagues that Baker had been previously convicted for soliciting a prostitute and the fact he lost his position as Scott County Juvenile Court Judge for lying about it on his judge application. McClelland said she also told board members that Baker had previously been accused of inappropriate behavior with a woman while he served as judge.

McClelland also said she opposed Baker’s appointment because she had misgivings about his lack of experience working in education. McClelland added that she felt her fellow board members questioned her faith for not changing her mind about Baker and that they tried to coerce her into abstaining from voting on his appointment.

According to a timeline of events laid out in court documents, Johnson was promoted from principal of Weber City Elementary School to director of personnel and instruction in November  2010, while Baker was serving as interim superintendent.

Baker was appointed to the superintendent’s role in September 2010 while serving as school board attorney, but did not fully take over for outgoing Superintendent Jim Scott until the end of the year. During that apprentice period, Baker received his superintendent’s license from the Virginia Board of Education after school board members vouched for him and area and state politicians wrote recommendations on his behalf.

 In January 2011, Johnson was named as one of two assistant superintendents appointed by Baker.

Jones wrote in orders “statement of fact” that during January and February 2011, Baker made remarks to Johnson  —  both in person and in text  —  that he could not live without her, that he loved her and that he had found the right woman. Court documents also showed that Baker sent Johnson a text saying he slept all night with a scarf she had left in his car during a trip to a conference in Richmond.

In February 2011, Johnson met with Baker and requested on at least two separate occasions to be transferred out of the central office while retaining her position as assistant superintendent. Baker did not take action at that time, records show.

In March, after Baker had sent her the “drinking and dancing” text, court records show that Johnson asked a third time for a transfer before approaching school board members about Baker’s conduct.

A day after Johnson approached board members Jessee and McClelland about Baker, she was reassigned to a newly created position based out of Weber City. According to Johnson, the office had no heating, air or a phone line. Johnson’s salary was reduced from approximately $82,000 to $67,565 the same day she began her new position. Johnson was demoted back to principal in June 2011.

 School officials contended that Johnson’s job change was not done in retaliation, but instead as an “unwinding” of all changes put into effect by Baker.

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