Judge: Demoted principal should be reinstated

Sharon Sanders was demoted, transferred to different school

By Kent Justice - Anchor/reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - An administrative law judge has ruled that the demotion of Windy Hill Elementary School Principal Sharon Sanders was wrong and that she should be reinstated and awarded back pay and benefits.

The Duval County School Board in January approved Superintendent Nikolia Vitti's recommendation that Sanders be demoted and transferred to another school following an investigation into allegations of FCAT testing violations at the school.

DOCUMENT: Judge's order on demotion appeal

Despite the fact that the district found no evidence that former teacher Christopher Bacca -- later convicted of sexual battery on a student -- used inside information to help students, multiple other violations were listed, including a failure to maintain proper seating charts, no training for test administrators, and an inability for a school assessment coordinator to monitor testing rooms.

"There were moments during testing where personnel at the school indicated that testing violations may be occurring and that she did not change the testing environment based on that recommendation," Vitti said earlier this year. "It's my job and my responsibility to ensure that there are consequences."

REPORT: Windy Hill Elementary School investigation

Administrative Law Judge E. Gary Early heard Sanders' appeal in late May. In his order, released Friday, Early wrote: "... the decision to test in Harris Hall (conference room) was made for any reason other than the best interests of the students. It was not done to facilitate cheating, to influence the test results or for any improper purpose whatsoever. The fact that the test scores have been validated suggests that the (Department of Education) agrees."

Early continued: "The School Board has failed to prove by a preponderance of the competent, substantial, and credible evidence that Ms. Sanders 'knowingly and willfully' failed to follow security rules for the distribution and return of the FCAT test and testing materials as directed, or that she 'knowingly and willfully' failed to account for all FCAT tests and testing materials before, during, and after testing."

Early went on to write, "...the School Board has, essentially, thrown the kitchen sink at Ms. Sanders in a broad and general count with little specificity.... There is no evidence in the record of this proceeding that Ms. Sanders failed to follow test administration directions specified in the test administration manuals."

Late Friday, Vitti told Channel 4 he respects the judge's opinion, but disagrees.

"The facts are the facts," Vitti said. "The fact is, other teachers came to the principal to tell her they were uncomfortable with the testing, that testing procedures were not being followed. The judge's report wants to blame the testing coordinator, but that person reports to the principal, and ultimately that makes her responsible… I stand by my original decision."

"I think at this point, the school board owes her an apology," said Sander's Attorney, Tad Delegal.

"I think the facts are the facts. Personnel decisions are hard, but I stand by my original recommendation," said Vitti.

"Did you overreact, throw the kitchen sink?" Channel 4's Kent Justice asked Vitti on Friday.

"No, look at the report. Multiple people came to the principals to say that violations were occurring on the day of testing," said Vitti.

Vitti said their investigation revealed problems that could not be ignored. Vitti believes even if a subordinate in charge of the testing failed, the school principal is where the buck stops.

"Maybe from the judge's view, he believed it was the test chair's responsibility. But ultimately, the test chair reports to the principal, and the principal was aware of the violations," said Vitti.

"We have asked from day one, simply do an investigation, ask the questions and you'll find there's no basis for this, and that's exactly what the judge said," said Delegal.

"Obviously, I respect the judge's opinion. There's due process for a reason, but as I review the decision, I disagree as Superintendent," said Vitti.

"There were numerous charges against Sharon Sanders. He went through each and every charge, said there's absolutely no evidence to support any of these. So it's a complete vindication," said Delegal.

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