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District fires Jeff Gilbert from principal post

Gilbert's attorney slams investigation, may sue for defamation of character


Citing alleged improper use of school funds as well as alleged insubordination among its reasons for doing so, the Reynolds School District has fired Jeff Gilbert from his post as principal of Reynolds High School.

Gilbert was informed of his termination in a June 20 letter from Superintendent Joyce Henstrand, who retired June 30.

Gilbert was placed on unpaid leave Jan. 31 following the district’s decision to investigate him.

Policy violations

The district released an April 25 document summarizing the investigation of Gilbert, noting 142 possible violations of district spending policies on such things as meals, gifts for teachers and school equipment.

“The audit report noted dozens of expenditures that were for gifts and meals that were made without prior approval as required by district policy,” said Andrea Watson, district spokeswoman. “The audit also revealed that dozens of expenditures were reimbursed (to Gilbert) from student body funds without approval from student government.”

The audit examined more than $43,000 in reimbursements and expenditures from July 23, 2009, through Dec. 15, 2011, according to a spreadsheet the district released.

According to the investigation summary, Gilbert would reimburse himself from funds drawn from an account of student fees, in alleged violation of district policy.

However, Gilbert’s attorney, Christopher Lundberg, told The Outlook that Gilbert did nothing different than previous Reynolds’ principals — a contention the investigation refutes — and that four external audits of Reynolds’ finances during his tenure revealed nothing to raise suspicion.

Lundberg noted that Gilbert allowed several other employees to use his credit card to make purchases on behalf of the school, making it look like he was “freewheeling” with student body monies, when in reality he was simply expediting “needed” school purchases.

Lundberg added that district policies on the use of student body funds contradicted each other, with one policy forbidding reimbursements and another allowing them.

“The scope of what is or is not a proper use of student body funds has been and continues to be unclear,” he said.

Lundberg added that every single purchase Gilbert made as principal using district funds was approved by the high school’s fiscal office.

Watson noted, however, that that meant Gilbert’s own employee signed off on the reimbursements.

Lundberg also raised a number of questions about how the investigation was conducted, including whether the district “cherry-picked” evidence against Gilbert in order to build a case against him because he was known to have publicly criticized Henstrand and other district officials on occasion.

“We’re obviously very disappointed and don’t believe the facts justify him being terminated in any respect,” Lundberg said July 2. Gilbert, he added, “did not lie, cheat or deceive” nor personally profit from “anything.”

Lundberg said that Gilbert may sue the district for defamation of character.

“Anyone can make an allegation,” Lundberg said, noting he has formally requested a hearing on the charges against his client, before the school board. “All of their allegations are either not true or vastly overstated.”

SUV, boat

Among the reasons Henstrand cited for firing Gilbert was the charge he spent more than $1,157 on the rental of a “luxury SUV” during a 2010 conference in San Diego to transport high school staff, as well as $685 on a “piloted luxury boat.

“Your repeated and improper expenditure of student body funds … contributed to my decision to terminate your employment,” Henstrand wrote in the June 20 letter.

In response, Lundberg said Gilbert originally had planned to rent a passenger van to transport several high school staff members during the conference, but that the rental agency upgraded the rental because a van large enough to accommodate all the staff members was not available.

Lundberg added the “piloted luxury boat” was rented as part of team-building exercise for high school and middle school staff members.

“He submitted it for reimbursement, and nobody said anything,” Lundberg said. “It’s not like he was trying to dupe anybody on these expenses.”

The letter also calls Gilbert to task for insubordination for authorizing a payment of $10,500 to Group MacKenzie, an architectural and designing firm, using Reynolds’ athletic funds, despite having received a “clear directive” from the board that district funds “could not be used for the high school stadium project.”

In response, Lundberg stated the “clear directive” to which Henstrand refers was issued after the MacKenzie work was completed.

License

Gilbert was placed on unpaid leave Jan. 31 following the expiration of his emergency administrators license, which was granted in July 2011 from the state Teachers Standards and Practices Commission.

In her June 20 termination letter to Gilbert, Henstrand cites Gilbert’s failure to “maintain the required licensure and 120 days have elapsed since your emergency license expired” as one of the reasons she was firing him.

However, Lundberg notes the reason Gilbert was unable to renew his license was because Henstrand declined to give him a letter of recommendation.

In a June 28 response to the district, Lundberg wrote: “Mr. Gilbert has completed all the necessary coursework, and submitted is related transcript to the Oregon Teacher Standards & Practices Commission,” adding: “At the end of January 2012, and as the final requirement to secure his license he had asked you for a letter of support for his licensure, which you declined based presumably on this investigation.”

Lundberg added that Gilbert may have inadvertently violated district spending policies from time to time and was willing to accept disciplinary action for doing so, but thought firing was too severe a penalty for whatever wrong he may have done.

“They’ve got all this smoke,” he said of the district. “But there’s really no fire.”