- Jeremy P. Kelley Staff Writer
A “data dump” of information about Superintendent Rhonda Corr, presented during the closed part of the school board’s Nov. 21 meeting, led to her getting placed on administrative leave just seven weeks after receiving a glowing performance evaluation, multiple school board members told the Dayton Daily News.
According to a pre-disciplinary hearing notice released by the board last week, it is considering firing Corr, whose bumpy tenure has included disappointing student test scores, a sports cheating scandal and a bitter contract fight with teachers.
Much of the information presented to the board Nov. 21 was from 33-page report prepared by outside attorney Beverly Meyer. She was tasked with investigating claims made June 12 by Markay Winston, who had been hired by Corr as DPS’ Chief Academic Officer, but then left after only one year. Winston made 31 specific complaints of racial discrimination and harassment, primarily against Corr.
Meyer’s report describes a “prolonged and comprehensive” investigation, with interviews of multiple witnesses and review of emails and other documents. It only cites one clear violation of board discrimination policy, for Corr’s pattern of using “black talk” that insulted black employees. But the report also alleged day-to-day workplace mismanagement. And further DPS investigation revealed claims of improperly received benefits and what the board described as unprofessional behavior.
Some of the language in the pre-disciplinary document spelling out the reasons for the Corr discipline was taken directly from Meyer’s investigative report.
Board President Robert Walker said the decision to sideline Corr relied heavily on the Meyer report. Board member Joe Lacey, who will leave the board in January after being defeated in his re-election bid last month, also said the report greatly swayed the board, which he said was unaware of many of the complaints.
“Most of the allegations in the hearing notice we found out about on Nov. 21, or certainly after Oct. 3,” Lacey said.
Elizabeth Lolli has been thrust into the acting superintendent’s chair, Corr’s lawyers are punching back against the allegations, and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley has actively stepped in to try to unify a school board that has added one member and will swear in three more in November.
“People are going to draw their own conclusions,” Walker said of the school board’s performance. “But we have a responsibility to work as the fiduciary body of the district, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Corr, who appeared at a press conference Wednesday with her two attorneys, has not responded to requests for comment.
‘It just raises our suspicions’
One of the pivotal dates over whether Corr returns to the district — or reaches a settlement in her contract with the board — is Oct. 3.
Despite ranking second from the bottom in Ohio in the school report card that came out three weeks earlier, the school board on Oct. 3 approved an evaluation full of praise for Corr and not a single negative comment. Board member John McManus had produced early drafts of the evaluation that were more balanced, including what he considered constructive criticism, but those criticisms were struck from the final document.
Lacey acknowledges there was disagreement among the board members, resulting in the criticisms getting removed. Instead, Corr drew only praise for her work on busing, student technology and classroom procedures. McManus said it was difficult for him to “come to peace” with the changes but said he did so because he was in the minority.
At last week’s press conference, Corr’s attorneys repeatedly brought up the Oct. 3 evaluation, and suggested she is being targeted for political reasons.
“When you have such a glowing review on Oct. 3 that applauds Rhonda Corr’s work in so many different ways across the board … then certain individuals change and the power structure changes, and all of a sudden we have a totally different response, it just raises our suspicions,” attorney Jon Paul Rion said.
The Meyer Report
Reading Corr’s Oct. 3 evaluation, you wouldn’t know she is the same person described in Meyer’s report, or the board’s pre-disciplinary hearing notice.
Meyer wrote that witnesses called Corr “an equal-opportunity chastiser,” who is openly critical of administrators and frequently casts blame on them. The hearing notice followed up with “Administrators report a hostile working environment created by your behaviors.”
Witnesses in Meyer’s report described petty or meddling behavior by Corr, including regularly entering others’ closed-door meetings “to determine whether she should be in the meeting.”
“Witnesses of all races and levels state that Corr regularly interrupts their meetings to speak with them, even when the matters she wishes to discuss are not important in the witnesses’ opinion,” the report says.
Lacey said he was aware of only small workplace concerns about Corr before reading the Meyer report. McManus said the board reacted quickly once it was presented with the information, placing her on leave that same night.
“It doesn’t get any quicker than that,” McManus said. “It would have been irresponsible to act on rumor alone before the process had exhausted itself and provided us with solid information gathered in a proper and official manner.”
McManus’s first evaluation draft had said Corr “needs improvement” in the area of accepting responsibility for successes and failures rather than blaming others. That idea was completely removed from Corr’s final, approved evaluation. But this week’s pre-disciplinary hearing notice says to Corr: “You refuse to accept responsibility for your actions.”
McManus’s draft also gave Corr a negative mark for her ability “to work well with people who represent opposing views.” That, too was removed, but in her report Meyer describes “the continually deteriorating relationship between (Corr and Winston),” with Corr excluding Winston from meetings, reassigning her duties and bickering with her in front of others.
“The Board has been asked by counsel to withhold comment on the pending allegations, and I have to honor that,” McManus said. “What I will say, though, is that I stand by every word that I said a month ago about the evaluation process.”
Not all the allegations in the board’s pre-disciplinary hearing notice came from Meyer’s investigation.
On Oct. 3, the same day her evaluation was approved, Corr filed for divorce from a woman she had married in Massachusetts in 2007, when same-sex marriage was not legally recognized in Ohio. In its hearing notice, DPS noted that Corr had marked herself single on her W-4 form, under penalty of perjury.
The hearing notice also says Corr lobbied for DPS to make domestic partner life insurance available in 2016, bought the insurance and collected on the benefit when her domestic partner passed away a few months later. But the district points out that Corr was married to another person at the time, as evidenced by the divorce filing.
Rion responded last week that Corr believed in good faith that she was not married due to questions about the legitimacy of the 2007 ceremony. The Provincetown, Mass., Town Clerk’s office confirmed the existence of a valid marriage certificate to a Daily News reporter.
“I think she had to have some idea that she was married,” said Lacey, who is also part of a same-sex marriage. “It just looks to me that it needs to be investigated, and that’s where we’re going.”
The next steps
Tom Ash, director of governmental relations for the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, says disciplinary cases that focus largely on day-to-day workplace issues are rare.
More common are financial cases like former Tecumseh Superintendent Brad Martin, who was fired for gambling away tax dollars, or the ongoing Indian Lake and Hamilton Local (near Columbus) cases where superintendents face sex and drug charges, respectively.
One recent local parallel was the 2014 case of Kettering’s Jim Schoenlein. School board members said he had such a toxic relationship with the district’s treasurer that it threatened to poison the entire central office.
Both Schoenlein and the treasurer, Steve Clark, reached separation agreements with the district that bought out a part of their remaining contracts to avoid lengthy court battles.
Ash said separation deals are the most common outcome in cases like these. But he said the fact that the school board makeup is about to change is an important issue. Corr’s hearing is scheduled for Dec. 13, and barring a speedy report, the process would last into 2018, meaning three new school board members could be faced with a key early decision.
Walker said that whenever hearing officer D. Jeffrey Ireland issues his recommendation, the board will take it under advisement, but is not bound to follow it.
Corr’s contract says she can be terminated for a material violation of board policies, among other reasons, and DPS has accused her of violating policies dealing with the superintendent’s job duties, staff ethics and staff conduct.
Rion argued the allegations are weak, but would not say whether Corr’s goal is to return to the superintendent’s job after this turmoil. She is only five months into a three-year contract.
Whaley: Time to ‘turn the page’
Whaley, who is critical of Corr’s term at the helm of Dayton Public Schools, said she had nothing to do with the board’s decision to place her on leave.
“School board members have asked me my opinion, both current and incoming board members, and I said that is not my job. That’s the board’s job to decide,” said Whaley, who is running for governor.
Newly elected board member Karen Wick-Gagnet, who starts work in January, said she was unaware there was even an investigation into Corr until the day Corr was put on leave. Newly elected William Harris wouldn’t comment on Corr at all.
Whaley said she was surprised by the positive evaluation Corr received Oct. 3, given the district’s major athletic probation, tumultuous negotiations with teachers and general public frustration over academic performance.
She said it’s time now to “turn the page” and said she has met with five of the seven members of the 2018 school board urging them to work together. Of the four board candidates endorsed by Whaley last month, three were elected.
“We really need a high-functioning board in Dayton if we want to be successful,” Whaley said. “That’s been the focus and I feel pretty good about that.”