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Chiles principal hires attorney to fight 2-week suspension

Posted at 11:52 AM, Jul 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-15 15:16:28-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) — The principal at Chiles High School has hired an attorney to fight a two-week suspension without pay.

Tuesday night, the board voted to refer principal Joe Burgess' appeal to the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings, which normally handles workers comp cases and disputes between administrators.

ABC 27 learned the School board currently does not have a policy in place for administrators to appeal disciplinary actions.

Superintendent Rocky Hanna suspended Burgess in June after he was informed of possible misconduct at Chiles High School.

In addition to the suspension, Burgess received a formal written reprimand.

Burgess's attorneys say the investigation focused on claims that Burgess misdirected Advanced Placement funds at Chiles High School, but the investigation was closed when proof was provided that the payments were properly made.

Monday, the district received written notice from Burgess' lawyer to appeal the 15-day suspension.

In a statement, attorney Stephen Webster says Burgess felt personally targeted when the investigation shifted to an entirely new allegation of wrongdoing once the initial allegation was disproven.

Burgess requested a copy of the grievance procedure and a name-clearing hearing. Both were denied.

For now, Leon County School's spokesperson, Chris Petley says the investigation focuses on hourly pay for employees, and they'll release a final report on their findings sometime Wednesday.

The full statement from Burgess's attorney is available below.

Principal Burgess is extremely disappointed to learn that his request for a name-clearing hearing with the District has been denied. Principal Burgess has served our schools with distinction, as historically evidenced by the unparalleled rankings Chiles High School has achieved, as well as a proven track record under his leadership as principal at Swift Creek Middle School and Springwood Elementary. He was shocked to recently learn that he was under investigation for allegedly misdirecting Advanced Placement (AP) funds, but he was satisfied the investigation was closed when proof was provided that the payments were proper. As such, he felt personally targeted when the investigation shifted to an entirely new allegation of wrongdoing once the initial allegation was disproven.

Principal Burgess is a man of integrity. Anxious to prove his innocence, he requested a copy of the grievance procedure and a name-clearing hearing. District procedure 1470 states that, "Administrative staff shall have access to a grievance procedure." The District's refusal to provide a copy of the procedure, and the District's refusal to provide a name-clearing hearing only further his belief that this action is retaliatory.
Stephen Webster, attorney for Burgess

Leon County Schools said their report, available below, recommends Burgess be disciplined in accordance with the District’s policies and regular practices, which may include discipline up to and including formal reprimand, suspension without pay, and/or demotion or transfer to another District facility.

LCS also said it is in the process of conducting a districtwide audit of hourly pay procedures at all schools and will provide additional guidance and training for school personnel.

The district released the following statement:

In early June, the district was made aware of potential misconduct by Chiles High School Principal Joe Burgess in regards to undocumented hourly pay from the Advanced Placement project funds. After meeting with Mr. Burgess and reviewing payroll and other related documents Superintendent Hanna made the decision to hire an external firm to conduct an investigation and, if necessary, give recommendations concerning potential discipline. On July 1, 2021 the District received the final report. As a result of the findings, Superintendent Hanna was prepared to recommend that a two-week suspension without pay and a formal reprimand be given to Principal Joe Burgess. However, on July 12, 2021 the District received a formal notice of appeal by Mr. Burgess’s attorney, Stephen Webster, and last evening the school board approved Superintendent Hanna’s recommendation to turn the matter over to the Division of Administrative Hearings prior to any District disciplinary actions.

Per the report attached:

“This investigation does find that for nearly all employees authorized to engage in hourly work utilizing AP project funds, [Principal] Burgess falsified District records by approving, signing, and submitting payroll documents he knew (or should have known) were inaccurate. This Report concludes that, contrary to Burgess’s claims otherwise, there was in most cases no expectation that employees would track or submit their hourly time. Instead, the hours Burgess approved and submitted for payment resulted from mathematical calculations that merely divided a pre-determined dollar amount by the employees’ hourly rate and then divided the result again over eight to ten months. The hours submitted often likely had no relation to the hours actually worked in the claimed pay period. Because hours were not tracked, it is impossible at this time to confirm that even the minimum number of hours needed were actually worked. This Report thus concludes that although Burgess could have properly paid these same employees for the same extra duty work, he did so in a manner that was grossly improper.”

“This report further recommends that Burgess be disciplined in accordance with the District’s policies and regular practices, which may include discipline up to and including formal reprimand, suspension without pay, and/or demotion or transfer to another District facility.

LCS is in the process of conducting a districtwide audit of hourly pay procedures at all schools and will provide additional guidance and training for school personnel.

LCS documents regarding investigation:

Investigative Report Chiles High School 1 by WTXL ABC27 on Scribd