A school secretary who criticized her boss’ use of taxpayer money to a school board member is suing the district, claiming they violated her constitutional rights of free speech, then firing her.
June Isselhardt, former 11-year veteran staffer with the O’Fallon School District 90, claims she was fired for talking to two school board members about employee health insurance contracts and grant money, and now she’s suing the district, according to East St. Louis Federal court documents filed last year.
Starting with the district as new superintendent July 1, 2015, Carrie Hruby is at the center of Isselhardt’s complaint alleging her civil rights were violated because the district deprived her of free speech, then fired her in retaliation for criticizing the superintendent.
Isselhardt, administrative assistant to the superintendent, was terminated in January 2016 on grounds of insubordination and failure to preserve confidentiality of district sensitive information, which she claims the district, through Hruby, issued “a broad and indefinite prohibition on her free speech rights after discovering that she was speaking to school board members regarding matters of public concern.”
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U.S. District Judge Staci M. Yandle denied the school district’s motion to dismiss one of the counts of the lawsuit. However, the court granted the school district’s motion to dismiss Isselhardt’s whistleblower claim because the Isselhardt failed counter the district’s motion to dismiss.
Representing O’Fallon CCSD 90, Joseph M. Wientge Jr., of Littler Mendelson PC in St. Louis, Mo., said, the district is pleased the court dismissed Isselhardt’s whistleblowing claim and recognized Isselhardt was not disclosing wrongdoing on the part of the district and that her firing was because of insubordination and failure to maintain confidentiality. The counts that survived were related to the free speech claims.
“It is important to note the district’s motion to dismiss was directed at only two of Ms. Isselhardt’s three claims, so the district was not seeking to dismiss the entire case, only those claims that were clearly legally deficient,” Wientge said.
Thomas G. Zurliene, of Weilmuenster Law Group PC in Belleville, who is representing Isselhardt, said the case is ongoing, and “we will continue to pursue the case.”
Isselhardt details in court documents her concerns about Hruby’s job performance regarding district employee health insurance and her involvement with a Title I grant for disadvantaged students. Beginning in July 2015 through Jan. 25, 2016, Isselhardt went outside of the chain of command turning to Becky Drury, an elected school board member, criticizing Hruby’s inefficient use of taxpayer resources.
Specifically, Isselhardt alleges Hruby, “failed to disclose the caps on the employee’s health insurance and because of this failure, the school district was forced to reopen negotiations with the union representing district employees.”
Boiling down to a disagreement on interpretation and application of Title I grant funds, Isselhardt and Hruby didn’t agree on whether the funds had to be apportioned according to individual schools within the district or applied district wide. Hruby asserted there were only seven homeless children in the district, but Isselhardt said that Hruby was “wrong, inflexible, and her decision was preventing the grant money from being used to get coats, shoes and other items to children in need,” according to Isselhardt’s complaint.
Isselhardt also raised concerns with possible violations of the Illinois Open Meetings Act just after John Wagnon became school board president in May 2015. Isselhardt alleged that while he was working from home often, several of his emails were received by enough board members to constitute a majority of quorum, which she alerted him to that same month.
On Jan. 14, 2016, Hruby confronted Isselhardt regarding about 20 emails specifically, out of 48,640 sent and received, going back four years, which Hruby believed to be inappropriate and grounds for termination stating she “reached out to board members and bashed me,” court documents state. Moreover, Hruby told Isselhardt during the private meeting she should hand in her resignation, and not to speak to anyone outside of her husband and lawyer, as well as issued a “directive that this stay between the two of us.”
When Hruby learned of Isselhardt’s disregard for her directive, she sent a letter to her the following day advising her the school board would consider her dismissal at the Jan. 19, 2016, meeting. On Jan. 25, 2016, the school board passed a resolution terminating Isselhardt’s employment based on Hruby’s recommendation.
Isselhardt is asking for $75,000, plus costs and fees. In her complaint, she claims she has and will continue to suffer damages from loss of wages, benefits, earning capacity, career opportunity, seniority; cost of seeking alternative income; mental anguish; severe emotional and physical distress; anxiety; depression; humiliation; and, loss of enjoyment of life.