DALLAS — The Dallas School Board has directed its attorney to investigate allegations the district’s teachers’ and classified employees’ unions brought against Superintendent Michelle Johnstone.
The allegations were outlined in a letter from the Dallas Education Association, the teachers’ union, and a petition from the classified employees’ union, Oregon School Employees Association. The DEA letter states that 77 percent of its members approved a vote of “no confidence” in Johnstone, with 116 agreeing, 13 disagreeing, 17 abstentions and five who did not vote. OSEA’s petition said that a majority signed it to request the board’s assistance “in re-establishing a safe and professional work environment.”
Board Chairman Matt Posey sent a letter to all district staff members on Friday afternoon outlining the process.
“The board has chosen its legal counsel, Paul Dakopolos, to conduct an investigation into the allegations that were made by both letters presented from each association,” Posey wrote. “This investigation will likely begin early next week.”
Since Friday’s announcement, the presidents of OSEA and DEA have expressed disappointment that Dakopolos isn’t hiring someone else to conduct the investigation.
“We had hoped that Mr. Dakopolos would recommend a neutral investigator for the task,” said OSEA President Pally Mann. “Right now, we have to trust in the process, allow the investigation to continue, and give the board the opportunity to complete their part.”
Dakopolos wrote in an email to Posey that he would provide more details on how the investigation will be conducted, but stated one DEA allegation was false. The allegation involved a special education due process in which an administrative law judge ruled against the district in April 2018.
“The letter from the Dallas Education Association states in the first bullet point: ‘Against the advice of the district’s legal counsel, Superintendent Johnstone pushed a lawsuit into litigation that cost the District about $450,000 more than if the advice was followed.’”
Dakopolos’ firm represented the district in the due process claim during the mediation process, he said.
“The parties signed a confidentiality agreement relating to all conversations during the mediation,” Dakopolos wrote. “Therefore, I am unable to discuss the substance of settlement discussions. I can say that this allegation in the DEA’s letter is completely false. I will not spend any more time addressing this false allegation or investigating it.”
DEA President Charlotte Riester said it’s common to hire an independent investigator in circumstances such as this.
“Such an investigator would engage in an investigation prior to making public announcements of his or her findings,” she said. “It is disheartening to see Mr. Dakopolos, the district’s regular counsel, announcing at least one of his conclusions prior to conducting any actual interviews of Dallas teachers. This certainly raises concerns.”
The lists of allegations against Johnstone from the unions often echo each other. The OSEA cited Johnstone has fostered a “fearful climate as a result of her bullying and intimidation tactics.” The petition said she threatened the jobs of those who disagree with her and has broken “a long-standing relationship of mutual trust and collaboration.”
DEA cited similar concerns, saying “This refusal to cooperate with staff has created an environment where innovation, creativity, and open dialogue are seen as detriments to careers, not benefits to the district.”
Both unions stated Johnstone has made questionable financial discussions, including six furlough days in the 2017-18 school year.
The DEA questioned why they were necessary when the district was aware of a trend in declining enrollment.
“We have taken great pride in our ability to collaboratively make decisions that would benefit our district. Since Dr. Johnstone has joined the staff, we have not seen this, nor have we experienced it,” Mann said. “Collaboration has not taken place in committee meetings, bargaining, leadership meetings or classified meetings with Dr. Johnstone for group discussions.”
Riester said she hopes the board will assure a thorough and unbiased investigation.
“We will encourage our members to participate if they are called upon to do so,” she said.
Classified and teaching staff at Morrison Campus Alternative School said they are among those who disagreed with the allegations against Johnstone, or were not aware of the votes.
Annette Anderson and Ann Tilgner, both OSEA members, said they were not notified of the vote of no confidence and have questions about the process.
“We weren’t invited to that meeting,” Tilgner said. “We didn’t know about it.”
Anderson said Morrison staff and other OSEA members asked to see details and documentation of the issues stated in the letters.
“There’s been no response to the OSEA union members about what our issues really are,” she said.
Staff members at the school say they don’t agree with the characterization of Johnstone’s interaction with school employees.
Morrison teacher Bill Fischer said he and his colleagues at the school aren’t making accusations but seeking clarity.
“None of us are making allegations whatsoever,” he said. “We are asking questions at this point, and we are going to start demanding answers.”
Posey asked the district staff for patience while Dakopolos conducts the investigation.
“I want to assure you that I and the other board members take these allegations very serious, and it is our intent with this investigation that we get to the bottom of each point that was brought forward,” Posey wrote. “At the end we are looking for the truth, and will do what’s best for the Dallas School District.”