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Lawsuit dismissed for deposed principal

by Merrie Leininger

Citing proper procedure by the Douglas County School District and rights not guaranteed by contract, a U.S. magistrate dismissed Gardnerville Elementary School Principal Kirk Cunningham’s lawsuit.

Cunningham, 49, who was an administrator at Jacks Valley Elementary School for 15 years and has been with the district for 23 years, filed the suit in March 1999

Cunningham claimed Nevada law and his contract gave him the right not to be transferred and he was demoted to a position of less responsibility, but U.S. District Judge David W. Hagen wrote in his summary judgment – filed March 10 – that Cunningham’s contract did not protect him from transfers.

Hagen also wrote that Cunningham’s contract while he was at JVES was from July 1, 1997 to July 1, 1998. He was placed as “principal on special assignment” at Gardnerville Elementary School July 1, 1998.

“Plaintiff enjoyed the same rank, pay and benefits under each job,” Hagen determined.

Cunningham said the judgment was a disappointment.

“I’m disappointed with the judicial system. But life does go on. There has to be a winner and a loser. I got an old-fashioned rear-end kicking,” he said. “I expect the superintendent (Pendery Clark) will try to fire me now, to be honest with you.”

Cunningham said, however, that as long as he remains in the district, he intents to be a thorn in its side.

“I’m somewhat of a maverick. I don’t buy into a lot of the things going on in the district,” he said. “When I came to the district in 1976, the district’s test scores were embarrassingly high. Since then, the quality of education has gone down the tubes and that’s evidenced by the test scores. I think the direction the district is headed is questionable. I’m astonished how low the test scores are. We’ve gone from a lighthouse to an outhouse district.”

Cunningham said he still has a few years until retirement, so if he is fired, he will probably file another lawsuit. He said he is convinced he has been a target of the school board and Clark and that is why GES has remained a multi-track school as long as it has.

“When I went to GES, it could have gone to single track, but it was just a place to warehouse me,” he said. “They have three principalships open in the district and I’m still a principal. If they want to try to fire me, we’ll definitely be in a court situation.”

Clark said he was placed at GES because his health situation at the time made it impossible for him to be a full-time principal and the district thought splitting duties with another full-time administrator could give him time to recover.

Cunningham, who suffers from blood clots in his legs, high blood pressure and herniated discs in his back, said he is feeling better this year. He said he felt a lot of his problems were stress-related.

Nevertheless, Cunningham offered congratulations to the district on a well executed case.

The school district, in a prepared statement from Communications Coordinator Maggie Allen, said Clark had this to say, “We are extremely pleased with this outcome. I don’t believe that anyone who knew anything about this case was surprised by the judge’s decision. We have said from the beginning that there was no merit to this lawsuit. It is just a shame that during this time of tight budget resources, the district has had to waste time and money on a frivolous lawsuit.”

David Brady, vice president of the Douglas County school board, asked that the administration check into the possibility of suing for the district’s legal costs.

The lawsuit listed the DCSD, Clark and board members, David Brady, Cheri Johnson, Michele Lewis, George Echan, Randy Wallstrum, Don Forrester and Diane McCoy as defendants.

Cunningham alleged he was denied due process guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. The lawsuit accused the district of holding a pretextural hearing which had a predetermined outcome and did not inform Cunningham of the reason for his dismissal. He also contended the board did not allow him an opportunity to refute reasons for the dismissal.

Saying the reassignment was a demotion that damaged his chances of professional advancement, the lawsuit asked the district to award $75,000 in compensatory damages and $75,000 in punitive damages as well as his attorney’s fees and court costs.

Cunningham was transferred from JVES and named a principal on special assignment, working with GES Principal Richard Brownfield, after using 70 days of accrued sick leave during the last year he was principal of JVES. Cunningham contended he had the right, as stated in his contract, to use 90 days of sick leave.