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Palmerton principal says suspension was retaliation

Published September 25. 2018 02:08PM

The lawyer for suspended Palmerton Area High School Principal Paula Husar contends his client’s job is on the line because of her critical comments about the superintendent during what was supposed to be a confidential job evaluation.

On Monday night, that attorney, Mark Bufalino, began questioning Superintendent Scot Engler during nearly three hours of cross-examination in a dismissal hearing for Husar.

Husar, who was told to turn in her keys and was walked out of the building by district administrators on Sept. 7, 2017, is suspended without pay, pending the outcome of the hearing in front of the school board.

She faces more than 20 charges which include a multitude of false statements about Engler, blaming him for the late release of class schedules, and trying to discredit him in an email to staff.

“None of these charges were brought up prior to Mrs. Husar suing you and the district, were they?” Bufalino asked Engler.

“The information in the charges contains evidence from evaluations that existed prior to the lawsuits,” Engler answered.

Husar filed a lawsuit in Carbon County Court in November 2016, alleging negligence and breach of contract after she received 1.15 points on her year-end evaluation and an “unsatisfactory performance rating.”

Lawsuits

In November 2016, Husar also filed a gender discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, age discrimination and retaliation claim against the district and Engler before the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.

In April, she followed up with a federal lawsuit after receiving the three-day suspension, one day after oral arguments in the Carbon County lawsuit.

Bufalino pointed out in April 2015, Engler wrote a letter of recommendation for Husar related to a program at Lehigh University she was taking to eventually be qualified to work as a superintendent.

In the letter, Engler referred to Husar as “well-respected and a kid-centered administrator focused on creative solutions.”

“She told me she needed a letter of recommendation for the program, and I wrote the letter based on those parameters,” Engler said.

Engler’s contract was up for renewal in 2016.

Questioned on Husar’s comments to board members, Engler said he did not know she discussed his job performance with them.

“It was my understanding the board asked administrators five questions and none of it was related to my job performance,” he said. “I was asked the same five questions. At some point, the board brought in a mediator to discuss what was an apparent conflict.”

Husar received a 1.15 on her 2015-16 evaluation and an unsatisfactory rating.

According to Bufalino, a 1.15 should have been classified as “needs improvement” per school code.

“I can’t agree with that based on the case law referenced when we were completing this evaluation,” Engler said.

The evaluation was eventually changed to satisfactory from unsatisfactory, which Engler said was done to “forgo challenges in court.”

Engler accused Husar of colluding with a school board member, Sherry Haas, who he said was “routinely at the high school.”

“There was one specific comment about ‘getting all the dirt you have on Scot because his contract is up for renewal,” Engler testified.

Upon questioning Bufalino, Engler said a secretary told him of the comment.

“You have no confirming evidence, but you made it a part of (Husar’s) evaluation,” Bufalino said.

Discipline issue

A lengthy portion of Monday’s discussion centered on an allegation that Husar falsely accused Engler of contacting a parent whose child was involved in a possible disciplinary matter and attempting to get the parent to say Husar acted inappropriately in the investigation.

Bufalino read from an email written by the parent in question, in which she is critical of how several teachers handled the disciplinary issue.

“Did any teachers receive any discipline for their handling of the incident?” Bufalino asked.

“No,” Engler answered.

Asked why Husar wasn’t suspended for many of the charges for which Engler is now recommending her dismissal, Engler said the district subscribes to a progressive discipline policy.

“I don’t believe that every single incident calls for a suspension,” he said. “This was a component of her personnel file that shows a problematic pattern of behavior.”

Other allegations discussed Monday included the late release of class schedules for the 2017-18 school year and an email sent to some teachers and staff before the 2016-17 school year.

Engler said Husar attempted to blame him for the late release of the welcome back letter and class schedules in 2017-18 by saying she was waiting for him to approve the letter.

“Was she not waiting for you to approve the letter?” Bufalino asked.

“I don’t approve letters. They are only sent for review,” Engler said.

Husar’s letter before the 2016-17 school year to a group of teachers and staff contained what Engler argued are references to her labor dispute with the district.

According to the letter, read by Bufalino, Husar wrote “things here have impacted me and my family in a profound way. My family and I like to thank each of you who reached out to check on me.”

The letter also references a message Husar gave to the Class of 2016 on graduation night, “What does not kill you makes you stronger.”

Husar had just returned from family medical leave at the time and Bufalino asked if the wording in the letter could be in reference to the cause of that leave?

“The people who got this letter and sent it to me thought it was a direct dig at me,” Engler said.

Bufalino’s cross-examination of Engler will continue at 6 p.m. Thursday.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the board will decide whether or not to dismiss Husar based on the evidence. Two-thirds of the board, or six members, must vote for Husar’s dismissal in order for the action to carry through.

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