2017-06-29 / Front Page

Judge tosses Groening’s lawsuit

By Amy Hubbell
Of The Enterprise staff

Former Glen Lake Superintendent’s federal lawsuit against Glen Lake Community Schools was dismissed this week.

Federal District Judge Gordon Quist issued an opinion Tuesday, dismissing a case that was filed in October 2015 just months after Groening resigned from the top job at the county’s largest school district.

“Obviously, we are satisfied with the Judge’s opinion to discuss this lawsuit,” said Fran Seymour, president of the Glen Lake Board of Education. “The opinion is very well reasoned and supported, and we believe he reached the correct and fair result.”

Groening’s attorney Eugenia Eardley confirmed yesterday that an appeal will be filed on Groening’s behalf.

Groening began employment at the school district, first as business manager, then after guiding the district through budget cuts she was appointed her superintendent in 2006.

It was a somewhat an unusual arrangement as most school chiefs emerge from the ranks of teachers and school administrators.

Groening initiated and oversaw Glen Lake’s participation in Federal Impact Aid, a program that compensates school districts and other agencies when real property is taken off the tax rolls. The district receives an estimated $3.2 million each year in the form of Impact Aid.

The lawsuit alleged that the school district violated the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and retaliated against Groening by launching an investigation into her use of sick and personal days.

However, troubles between the board and Groening began well before her use of FMLA, dating back to January 2014 when Seymour was elected president of the School Board.

“Seymour’s style — considered more demanding of Groening — was much different than that of former board president Jennifer Omerza,” the judge’s opinion states.

Board members requested access to administrators’ performance evaluations to reference when considering raises and contractual renewal. Groening denied access saying they were “confidential.”

The district’s legal counsel told the board that employee evaluations are subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act to anyone who makes a request.

“After receiving this information … several board members concluded that Groening had misled them about their right to review administrator evaluations,” the opinion states.

In October 2014, Groening went on medical leave when she had hip replacement surgery. Prior to taking leave, Groening participated in the selection of retired Leland Public School superintendent Mike Hartigan to serve as interim superintendent during her absence.

“The School Board did not require Groening to do any work while she was on FMLA leave,” the opinion states.

Hartigan didn’t ask Groening to do any work while on leave. And school the school board told Groening’s staff not to contact her during her convalescence.

However, Groening wanted to be copied on emails and other communications to keep apprised of what was going on while she was away.

She returned to work full time in December.

Around the end of January and into February 2015, Groening took FMLA leave again to care for her mother, who lives out of state. She returned in February and took a vacation for two weeks.

In March, shortly after returning from vacation, Groening took additional FMLA leave to care for her mother, and later than month attended an Impact Act Conference, which was also away from the school district.

She was scheduled to attend another Impact Aid conference in April. Given the amount of time Groening had been out of the district, Seymour asked the superintendent to “confirm that her attendance at the conference would not affect her ability to do her job.”

Board members asked that Groening provide a spreadsheet listing the days she had taken off. She responded to the request by providing a listing of the days she had taken off for vacation and sick time.

The spreadsheet was not an official school document kept in the regular course of business, leading board members to question leave time was tracked for Groening and other administrators as well.

On March 30, 2015, Groening’s attorney sent a letter to the district stating her intention to retire at the end of her contract on June 30, 2016.

Counsel also stated that since her request for FMLA leave in 2014, Groening had “experienced hostility and apparent retaliation” from various members of the board.”

The following month, the board authorized an audit by the Thrun firm and Rehmann.

Groening had been scheduled to retire at the end of the 2015-16 school year. However, she submitted her resignation in August on the evening before the board met to receive the results of the investigation.

The report found “significant misuse of public funds” under the Groening administration.

Her lawsuit alleged that the district had retaliated against her for taking time off under the federal Family Medical Leave Act. The judge disagreed,

“(The district’s attorney) recommended an audit as a means of addressing his concerns about Groening not providing complete or accurate information about the management of the school district,” the opinion states. “Defendants (the school district) have shown that board members had legitimate concerns about a number of issues, and they were justified, if not compelled by their legal and civic obligations, to seek answers to their questions about the financial management of the school district.”

Judge Quist ordered Groening pay the school district’s cost for depositions, transcripts and court reporter fees.

Seymour expects the amount to total $2,685.

“The board and administration look forward to continuing to focus on improving the education and leadership opportunities for our students,” Seymour said. “Our goal as a district team is to inspire and prepare our students for achieving their highest potential.”

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