The battle between former school superintendent Don Owen and his former employers in Urbana is a long way from over.
People file lawsuits for a variety of reasons — sometimes to try to force a quick and easy settlement payment out of a defendant, sometimes as a principled effort to seek remuneration for a provable wrong and sometimes because they simply don’t know any better.
We’ll leave it to the judicial system to settle those issues as they relate to the filed against the Urbana school district and members of the school board by ousted former Superintendent Don Owen.
But Owen’s lawsuit raises some interesting questions vis a vis the relationship between an elected school board and the individual it hires to run the school district and answer to it.
The lawsuit’s allegations portray Owen as some sort of white knight seeking to resolve “issues related to racial and gender bias within the district” against the opposition of school board members.
Irritated by his stalwart efforts to achieve social justice, Owen alleges that he was placed on administrative leave in November 2018 until June 30, 2019, when his contract was not renewed.
That all adds up to, Owen alleges, discrimination involving state and federal laws that justifies monetary damages, restoration to his former position and reimbursement for lawyer fees.
That is quite a load. If Owen achieves his intended goals, it will be big casino for him.
But it’s a long way from here to there, and there are many pitfalls that Owen and the district will face along the way.
There’s always a lot of back and forth going on behind the scenes in disputes of this nature.
But, as community members will recall, there also was a lot going on in front of the scenes with Owen and the district, and it wasn’t pretty.
People will remember that Owen, in zealous pursuit of his mission, decided to fire the district’s deans as part of his plan for an ill-conceived “restorative justice” disciplinary program scheduled to begin at the start of the 2018-19 school year.
The deans, dealing with unruly students at the request of teachers, were essentially the school district’s front line on disciplinary issues.
When the deans were removed, considerable chaos ensued, the high point being a brawl in which a teacher was injured.
Everyone, it seemed, was complaining about what was going on in the middle and high schools because of the failed restorative-justice program. Board members blamed Owen for pushing too fast on a program that he had been advised to slow down in implementing, and not long after, replaced him, bringing on former Superintendent Preston Williams in an interim role before hiring Owen’s former deputy, Jennifer Ivory-Tatum, who had left for Champaign in 2017 after he tried to demote her, as his successor.
Owen, however, said that’s not why he was shunted aside, that the real reason for his ouster was that he objected to a board-ordered audit of a group of employees whose hiring Owen had overseen.
Owen appears to make much of the fact that the board didn’t consult with him or get his approval of the audit. But the board sets policy for the district, not Owen. The superintendent works for the board, not the other way around.
If board members want to examine hiring practices, why wouldn’t they be entitled to do so?
Further, it would be natural for Owen to object to the audit because the board, obviously, was raising concerns about Owen’s hiring decisions.
Finally, Owen alleges that he complained that the board was illegally targeting members of a minority group for review, contending that because they are members of a legally protected group, they are exempt from scrutiny.
Since when are any public employees not subject to some sort of performance review by their employers? How can looking at a group of employees to determine why they were hired and how they are performing be legally impermissible?
Questions might arise if, after the review was conducted, some or all of the employees were subjected to inequitable treatment attributable to racial malice. But there’s no indication of that.
From the outside looking in, it appears that board members, as conscientious stewards of a K-12 school district, wanted to make sure the interests of students and taxpayers were being addressed by district employees.
There are, of course, two sides to almost every story. Owen has put forward his version of a behind-the-scenes confrontation the district can be expected to challenge in almost every respect. If this case ever comes to trial — that’s a big if — it will an angry and interesting showdown.