SHTA, District Fail to Resolve Podl Grievance

Due process claims escalate to arbitration


The Shakerite

The SHTA will go into arbitration due to a grievance the SHTA filed against the school district. “We thought we had it worked out, but at the last minute the district said it would not work, so we were forced into arbitration,” SHTA president Dr. John Morris said.

The Shaker Heights Teachers’ Association announced Friday that it will enter arbitration to resolve a grievance the SHTA filed against the school district on behalf of English teacher Jody Podl.

According to the SHTA contract, a grievance is “a claim initiated by a teacher or the Association that there has been a violation, misinterpretation or misapplication of the policies, master contract, salaries, hours, employment conditions, and/or disciplinary action under such policies or rules of the Board.”

The contract specifies that arbitration ensues when the employee and administration fail to resolve the grievance. Under arbitration, a third party is brought in to settle a dispute. According to Dr. John Morris, SHTA president, this is the first time in the 35-year history of the association that it will enter arbitration with the district.

Podl was placed on administrative leave Oct. 10 while the administration investigated complaints it designated as discrimination, bullying, harassment and intimidation. She has yet to return to the classroom.  

An investigation conducted by Dr. Marla Robinson, chief of staff, and concluded Oct. 24 found no evidence of discrimination. A separate investigation into bullying, harassment and intimidation claims was initiated by Principal Jonathan Kuehnle but completed by Dr. Terri Breeden Nov. 5, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, after Kuehnle was placed on administrative leave Nov. 1.

Breeden concluded that Podl should be disciplined and issued a reprimand Nov. 6. However, after Morris released a letter to association members Nov. 7 detailing Podl’s status, the investigations and claims of due process violations, a raucous community meeting ensued Nov. 8. Throughout the one-hour meeting, parents hollered, chanted and demanded explanations from Dr. Stephen Wilkins, interim superintendent. Students and parents also accused the district of institutionalizing racial inequity.

Interim Superintendent Stephen Wilkins then apologized publicly Nov. 13 via email and on the Shaker website for its actions in Podl’s case. The message stated, “First, I want to apologize to longtime High School English teacher Ms. Jody Podl. The review process was meant to be conducted promptly but those leading the work did not respond as timely as desired,” he wrote. “In addition, I am reviewing the performance of Principal Kuehnle and Assistant Superintendent Breeden in regards to this important matter. They did not live up to my expectations for how to process such reviews. I will take any appropriate corrective actions pending a thorough examination.”

The SHTA grieved the district’s actions on the basis of academic freedom, communication and lack of due process. It was the association’s first over due process.

According to Executive Director of Communications and Public Relations Scott Stephens, grievances are not uncommon. “We’ve had more than four this year, and that’s not unusual in a district our size. It’s actually a healthy avenue —  to grieve an alleged violation of a contract… and then it goes through an orderly process,” he said.

The grievance claims that the district did not follow due process while investigating accusations against Podl. “Due process means that there is a process that is followed when there is an infraction of a school policy,” Morris said.

Clause 3.02 of the SHTA contract states that a “teacher may reply to any material in his/her personnel file which the teacher deems to be critical of him/her by providing a written statement to be placed in his/her personnel file and attached to the critical statement.”

That clause is the basis for the association’s due process claims. Podl was denied these opportunities to respond, according to the grievance. According to Morris, Podl was also not given the full statements used in the investigation, including names of people who made the statements and dates statements were recorded. “We were never presented with unredacted statements or emails that were used as evidence for the disciplinary action,” Morris said.

According to Morris, the SHTA and the district had been working toward a settlement agreement over the district’s handling of the Podl investigation and due process. “We thought we had it worked out, but at the last minute the district said it would not work, so we were forced into arbitration,” he said.

Wilkins and Stephens declined to comment on the grievance or arbitration because they say both are personnel matters. Board of Education President Jeffrey Isaacs also declined comment.

Investigations Financial Reporter Hilary Shakelton contributed reporting.

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