Carmel Clay Schools should have provided information on the factual basis for putting its superintendent and human resources director on leave in October 2017, according to Indiana’s Public Access Counselor, who is responsible for interpreting public access law and advising the public.
Former CCS Supt. Nicholas Wahl and Director of Human Resources Corrine Middleton were placed on administrative leave in October 2017 while the school board conducted a review of district leadership. School board President Layla Spanenberg confirmed that the review included examining the relationship between the two administrators, and many people speculated that they had been romantically involved. In January, CCS announced that both administrators had resigned.
In a 16-page advisory opinion, Public Access Counselor Luke Britt states that the district attempted to skirt the intent of the Access to Public Records Act by saying the three-month administrative leave of its administrators did not appear to be disciplinary and referring to their eventual departures as resignations.
“Using CCS’ logic, a factual basis would likely never need to be created as long as an affected employee accepts the terms of a negotiated agreement after-the-fact,” the opinion states. “This ‘nothing to see here’ approach could ostensibly always be invoked under the auspices of ‘a change in direction’ or ‘administrative review.’”
The report states that government agencies do not need to provide personnel files of public employees except for some basic facts, information related to formal charges and the factual basis for a disciplinary action in which final action has been taken and resulted in the employee being suspended, demoted or discharged.
Britt’s investigation concluded that placing the administrators on leave was a disciplinary action, as the CCS progressive discipline policy lists paid administrative leave as an option. He also took issue with the length of the leave, stating that the commonly accepted standard appears to be 30 days.
“CCS should be mindful that a 90-day administrative leave is nothing short of a three-month paid vacation on the taxpayers’ dime,” Britt states.
Wahl is receiving his contract salary and partial benefits through June 30. His contract was set to run through June 30, 2022. According to Wahl’s contract, signed in August 2013, his annual salary was $195,000 with potential increases each year. Middleton received her salary, which was $114,299 in 2017 according to Indiana Gateway, through March 31 and received payment for 26 unused vacation days.
The report points out that CCS adopted a policy prohibiting workplace relationships with subordinates soon after the resignations, which “lends even more weight to the contention that the administrative leave and eventual coerced resignations were disciplinary in intent,” it states.
Britt also states that it appeared Wahl and Middleton didn’t have much of a choice when they resigned. CCS officials said their departures were voluntary, but Britt disputes that.
“The bottom line is that a public agency cannot short circuit APRA’s factual basis requirement by surreptitiously designating all adverse personnel actions involving a public employee as: non-disciplinary; non-final; or merely resignations,” the report states.
The opinion is intended to be advisory and education in nature and is non-binding. A CCS spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment as of press time or indicate if the district plans to release information on the factual basis for putting Wahl and Middleton on leave. An attempt to reach Spanenberg was unsuccessful as of press time.