By Bob Dunn, The Berkshire Eagle
PITTSFIELD — Pittsfield School Superintendent Jason McCandless said when he discussed the involuntary transfer of a Capeless Elementary teacher, he believed he was resolving a personality conflict and not imposing punitive discipline.
That teacher, Melissa Fawcett, has filed a civil suit against the city and her former principal, Candy Jezewski, alleging she was forced out of her position and retaliated against for comments she made during a June 2014 inventory of the school’s tech equipment.
McCandless took the stand Tuesday in Berkshire Superior Court before Judge John Agostini to testify about the case.
Fawcett missed the mid-April deadline in 2014 to be on the transfer list for the upcoming school year, but according to McCandless’ testimony, Jezewski recommended the involuntary transfer from Capeless to Egremont.
McCandless said the decision whether to implement such a transfer is his. He and Fawcett met on July 7, 2014, to discuss the transfer. McCandless said Jezewski had informed him that Fawcett had engaged in office gossip and was connected to a breach of confidentiality regarding another teacher, though not directly responsible for that breach.
McCandless testified Tuesday that those offenses on their own would not rise to the level of a disciplinary, involuntary transfer. But, considering Fawcett had already stated her intention to seek a transfer, he decided that was the best course of action.
McCandless said he didn’t do any independent investigation of Jezewski’s claims, but noted there was a fourth grade teacher at Egremont looking to transfer out of that school and thought swapping the two was the best way to resolve the conflict and keep both teachers in the district.
He further testified that, had Fawcett filed a grievance regarding the decision, it likely would have been decided in her favor, as the School Committee has the final say if a transfer is challenged via grievance.
Fawcett was a fourth grade math and science teacher at Capeless, and she also served as the school’s “innovation teacher” since she had additional tech training and responsibilities regarding the school’s computer equipment.
That equipment included 22 iPad mini tablets that were provided to the school via a grant.
Ten each went to two second grade classrooms and, according to testimony last week, Jezewski said the remaining two were allocated for staff use.
According to the suit, it was “common knowledge” among the Capeless staff that Jezewski had taken the two tablets home for personal use. In June 2014, an inventory of the school’s computer equipment revealed that two tablets were not in the building.
Fawcett has testified that she told a member of the school’s tech department they should check with Jezewski regarding the whereabouts of a pair of iPad minis that were unaccounted for.
Fawcett said that led to a confrontation between herself and Jezewski in which Fawcett was accused of telling the tech department the iPads were in Jezewski’s possession and in use by her family — a claim that Fawcett has denied.
Over the course of the next week, Fawcett said, she was summoned to Jezewski’s office on three occasions to be verbally reprimanded, though no official disciplinary action was taken. In each instance, Fawcett said Jezewski said “other people” had raised issues with her about Fawcett, including disparaging the value of staff meetings, complaining about the state of office equipment and divulging confidential information regarding the employment status of a fellow faculty member.
Eventually, Fawcett attempted to put herself on the transfer list, which would have notified the district she was willing to voluntarily change schools within the district if an appropriate position became available.
McCandless said there was no final determination regarding the transfer because Fawcett resigned in August 2014, before the process had played itself out.
Fawcett, represented by attorneys Mary Courtney and Michael Hinkley, is seeking damages including back pay, court costs and interest. Jezewski and the city are being represented by attorney Jeffrey J. Trapani.
Bob Dunn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @BobDunn413 on Twitter and 413-496-6249.
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