Former IW school employee suing board, superintendent

Published 9:33 am Friday, June 2, 2017

Former Isle of Wight County Schools Special Education Director Tammie Rollins-Hines has filed a $250,000 lawsuit against the county’s school board and Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton. The suit alleges that the negative employee performance evaluation and reprimand she received during her final year of employment with the division was given to her unjustly and in retaliation for her refusal to reallocate federal special education funds for non-special education purposes.

The suit was filed in Isle of Wight County’s Circuit Court on March 31 of this year by H. Woodrow Crook of Crook and Pack P.C., a Smithfield-based law firm representing Rollins-Hines in this case. The members of the school board and Thornton filed a demurrer in response to the suit on April 25, with the representation of Jeremy D. Capps of the Richmond-based law firm Harman, Claytor, Corrigan and Wellman. A demurrer is a legal motion that acknowledges the truth of the facts submitted by the plaintiff, but claims that the facts are either irrelevant or insufficient to justify ruling in the plaintiff’s favor.

In the suit, Rollins-Hines alleges that in early 2016 Thornton was seeking funds for a new reading program and repeatedly asked her about using unexpended federal special education budgeted funds for the new program. She claims to have told him at the time that those funds could not be used for anything other than special education purposes. On March 24, 2016, she claims to have learned via an email from the division’s executive director of elementary instruction, Susan Goetz, that the division had imposed a freeze on spending in the special education department until further notice, and that she was now being asked to notify Goetz or then-Assistant Superintendent Heather Tuck if any funds were needed.

The suit claims that it was this freeze on spending of funds under Rollins-Hines’ control that resulted in her being unable to carry out her duties and responsibilities as director of special education, and that the freeze was imposed as a means of tying her hands in order to cause complaints from vendors, special education teachers, principals and related service providers.

As a result, Rollins-Hines claims she received her first-ever letter of reprimand from Goetz and unfavorable evaluation by Goetz and Tuck. After she had received the reprimand and unfavorable evaluation, she met with Thornton and Goetz to discuss a letter dated May 23, 2016, in which Thornton recommended to the school board that Rollins-Hines be reassigned to a special education teaching position and have her salary reduced.

The demurer filed on behalf of the school board and Thornton, however, alleges that Thornton recommended reassigning Rollins-Hines because she had not met expectations with regard to team collaboration and leadership. Pursuant to Virginia Code 22.1-294, the defendants have argued that Rollins-Hines was only entitled to an informal meeting with either the school board or superintendent to discuss Thornton’s recommendation, that there was not a grievance procedure in place for her as director of special education, and that she left her employment with IWCS but did not allege that she was terminated.

The demurrer further argues that Rollins-Hines’ complaint does not claim that the defendants violated the Code of Virginia, denied her due process or wrongfully terminated her, and that its claim of breach of “contractual duty of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing,” is not recognized as a cause of action in suits concerning an employment contract. It also asserts that Thornton was not Rollins-Hines’ employer, nor did he have a contractual relationship with her, therefore, he could not breach a “contractual duty,” nor be held liable individually under the complaint’s allegations. The school board, likewise, would be immune from any punitive damages, the demurrer argues.

Neither the initial complaint nor the demurrer makes any reference to an investigation conducted by the Daily Press in 2016 into the seemingly high number of special education-related complaints made to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights against Isle of Wight County Schools. The results of that investigation, which were published on Aug. 23, 2016, revealed that from 1994 through 2016, IWCS has been investigated by the OCR 19 times. According to the Daily Press article, that is only one time less than Newport News Public Schools, which has about five times as many disabled children enrolled. The article also cited that 15 of those 19 complaints happened since 2007, when Rollins-Hines was serving as director of special education.

Regarding the suit’s implication that Thornton’s request for the reallocation of federal special education funds was somehow illegal, Virginia Department of Education’s Director of Communications Charles Pyle said he could not offer a legal opinion on the matter, but that there were limited circumstances when special education funds could be legally used for regular education students.

“Divisions must submit detailed annual plans to VDOE describing how they propose to use their IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) funds,” Pyle said. “There are provisions that allow for the use of IDEA funds to provide coordinated early intervening services for students who have not been identified for special education services.”

Lynn Briggs, Isle of Wight County Schools’ director of gifted services, community and media relations, said on May 26 that she could not comment on matters concerning pending litigation.

Crook was unable to be reached for comment on the next steps in the process or potential trial dates.

Rollins-Hines began working for Isle of Wight County Schools in 2004 as their special education coordinator and was promoted in 2005 to director of special education, a position she held until Aug. 1, 2016. She now resides in Dinwiddie County.