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Another lawsuit?

by Sharon Carter

As a lawsuit claiming the Douglas County School District violated the civil rights of former George Whittell High School vice principal Susan Grady Baldwin draws closer to a jury trial, a similar suit could be waiting in the wings.

Kirk Cunningham, who was officially removed from his position as principal at Jacks Valley Elementary School earlier this week, said Friday he is exploring “other legal avenues” to stay on the job as an on-site principal in the district.

Cunningham, 47, has 22 years in the district as an administrator. He said his removal from Jacks Valley came as a result of using 70 days of accumulated sick leave this past school year.

Cunningham suffers from high blood pressure and blood clots in his legs.

Although he assured the school board his physician, Dr. William O’Shaughnessy of Carson City, has said he is able to work and his condition would not be adversely affected by working, Tuesday the board removed Cunningham and reassigned him as a “principal on special assignment” to an unnamed multi-track school.

The board’s unanimous action came after a closed hearing and deliberations that took nearly three hours. It supported a recommendation made by Douglas Superintendent Pendery Clark.

Afterward, Cunningham said he was disappointed but not too surprised by the vote. His wife, Vickie, a nurse at Carson-Tahoe Hospital who said leading a school was one of the most important parts of her husband’s life, wept quietly.

“The first question in my mind is: Does sick leave have any significance?” Kirk Cunningham said. “Am I being discriminated against because I got sick?”

Cunningham said there was a lot of concern that his absences could affect the lines of communication between district officials and teachers as schools gear up to teach ‘new competencies.’ He said he was told such communications suffer when a school’s principal is absent and there is no substitute principal and no vice principal. Cunningham said he could not guarantee he would not be absent next year.

“They said there were no qualified substitutes available, and while I know there are some around, finding a substitute is not my responsibility,” Cunningham said. “I asked to be reassigned to a school, like C.C. Meneley (Elementary School) which needs a principal and has a vice principal on staff. Meneley’s also close to where I live (in the Gardnerville Ranchos), which would make it a little easier on me.”

It didn’t happen.

Friday Cunningham said he has concerns about the validity of his contract.

“There’s a 90-day clause that says if I’m out sick for 90 days in a school year, the district can look at making me retire early or take a leave of absence. I wasn’t out 90 days. It also says they have to notify me by May 1, or the contract remains in effect for another year. They didn’t.”

Cunningham said it would take a court injunction to enforce the terms of his contract, but if that happened and since his contract is site-specific, he could be at Jacks Valley again next year.

“My attorney has been in Las Vegas since the hearing, so we haven’t had time to discuss my options,” Cunningham said. “But in all probability, we’ll be right behind Susan Grady (Baldwin).”

Although Baldwin has recently accepted the vice principal position at Douglas High School in Minden, her attorney said the case is proceeding according to schedule in U.S. District Court in Reno.

Tom Donaldson of Carson City represents the Nevada State Education Association as well as Baldwin in the lawsuit against the district.

“We are proceeding with the discovery (exchanging information with the school district’s attorneys), which is due in August, we’ll have motions in September and we’ll be ready to go to trial by November – although no trial date has yet been set,” Donaldson said Friday.

Baldwin, like Cunningham, has 22 years with the district.

Her issue with the school district is the method by which her administrative position at Whittell was eliminated last year.

The complaint states she was not notified in a timely manner of the elimination of the position she had held for six years, and also that she was demoted and deprived of her administrative job without due process, a violation of her 14th Amendment rights.

The Record-Courier E-mail: rc@tahoe.com

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