What happens when the superintendent blows the whistle on the board?

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Things went south quickly in the Hempstead Union Free School District in New York. The district hired a reform-minded superintendent in 2017 in light of a history of corruption, mismanagement and poor academic performance.  But by November of that year, the relationship between the board and the superintendent was off the rails. 

The first sign of trouble was when the board fired the Special Investigators that the superintendent had hired to look into the problems in the district.  In response, the superintendent contacted several law enforcement agencies about his concerns.  On December 6, 2017, the superintendent sent an email to the board to let them know he had done this.  Three weeks later the board suspended him. 

When school started up again in January the superintendent took his case to The People with a “Community Letter.”  In it he attempted to rally the troops to his side, warning that “politics, self-interest, patronage, vendetta, threats and cover-ups cannot rule the day.” 

That did not go over well with the board.  On January 9th they suspended him with pay. 

These facts formed the basis of a decision by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of the school board. The superintendent claimed that he suffered retaliation for exercising his constitutional right of free speech.  He was reporting what he believed to be illegal and corrupt activities to law enforcement and the community at large. He claimed that he had a moral, legal and professional obligation to do so. 

In fact he did have a professional obligation to do so, and that’s why he lost his case. The 2nd Circuit held that the superintendent was not speaking “as a citizen” but rather, as an employee, performing his job duties. It was his duty to report corruption and illegal activity. Therefore, he was acting pursuant to his job responsibilities. Speech of an employee as an employee is not protected by the First Amendment. Thus this case is yet another example of the fact that your district’s highest paid employee has the least protection under the First Amendment. 

The case is Waronker v. Hempstead Union Free School District, decided by the 2nd Circuit on October 17, 2019. It was in the news recently because the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to take up the case. Thus the decision of the 2nd Circuit stands. 


Tomorrow: an idea borrowed from Seinfeld