Opinions 

6/23/2003

Kirkland fires back at St. Vrain

By Trevor Hughes
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — Former St. Vrain schools administrator Ken Kirkland sued his former bosses Monday, blaming them for personal humiliation and mental anguish following what he says was an illegal dismissal.

Kirkland, the assistant superintendent for auxiliary services, was placed on unpaid leave Nov. 18, 2002, after the St. Vrain Valley School District accused him of spending the school system into a $13.8 million deficit that’s still causing major financial problems. He was fired April 23.

In his suit, Kirkland claims he and the district signed a valid resignation agreement that guaranteed him salary and benefits through the end of the fiscal year.

Five days later, he says, the district rescinded that agreement.

The suit doesn’t address the district’s accusations that he misled his employers.

“The school district unlawfully deprived Dr. Kirkland of his constitutionally protected property interests by placing him on unpaid administrative leave without providing him with due process of law,” says the suit Kirkland filed in the U.S. District Court in Denver on Monday.

The St. Vrain Valley Board of Education fired Kirkland despite an annual $111,255 contract that failed to specify he could be terminated for good reason. The district has since changed its contract language and acknowledged that Kirkland’s suit was expected.

Kirkland’s suit names the district and the seven school board members in office at the time, seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages and lost wages.

“It is unfortunate that Ken is seeking monetary damages,” district spokeswoman Nancy Herbert said in a written statement. “The board and the superintendent will need time to review and assess the lawsuit with their legal counsel before making any statements.”

The suit specifically singles out board Vice President Rick Samson, who has been one of the most outspoken critics of the former trusted and well-liked employee.

“If somebody lies to you and somebody falsifies financial documents and the auditors don’t tell you about it, what are you supposed to do?” Samson said in November.

Kirkland asked the court to hold Samson “personally and individually liable” for any damages caused by his statements.

The $13.8 million shortfall forced across-the-board pay cuts of 7.125 percent for all employees within the district, as well as forcing reductions in student programs.

State Treasurer Mike Coffman bailed out the district with interest-free loans, which the district is still paying back. At the end of 2002, the district owed the state $24 million.

In his suit, Kirkland said Samson’s statements about the situation were illegal and defamatory. The 14-page filing does not contain any new information about the district’s financial condition, or the factors leading up to it.

A criminal investigation into the budget crisis is ongoing, with findings expected sometime this month. Kirkland has denied any cover-up or wrongdoing.

“As a result of the statements, Dr. Kirkland has suffered actual and special damages ... including, but not limited to, damage to his reputation, personal humiliation, mental anguish, lost income and expenses, and damage to his future employability and earning capacity,” the suit says.

On Monday, both Kirkland and Samson declined to comment on the suit. Kirkland has been working as a finance consultant for several undisclosed clients but does not yet have a full-time job. He still lives in Longmont.

“I think it speaks for itself,” Kirkland said of the suit.

Samson is serving out the last months of his term before term limits force him from office this year.

“It would be difficult for me to comment on it,” Samson said. “I’m sure my lawyers would not like me to comment on it. I haven’t seen it, and I haven’t been served yet.”

According to Kirkland’s suit, the district sought his resignation Nov. 13, 2002, a deal Kirkland says he accepted because he would be paid his salary and health benefits through the June 30, 2003, end of the school year. That would have been worth at least $65,000 to Kirkland.

But according to the suit, the board five days later unilaterally rescinded the agreement and placed Kirkland on unpaid leave and halted his insurance benefits. Herbert said she was unaware of such an agreement.

Kirkland’s suit says the district “unlawfully deprived (him) of his constitutionally protected property interests by placing him on unpaid administrative leave without providing him with due process of law,” with a “willful and wanton disregard” for his rights.

Coffman said he’s “shocked” Kirkland is suing the district and said that if Kirkland wins, it would cast light on a serious problem of employment law in Colorado, or at least the district.

“Given what he did, if he couldn’t be expeditiously removed from the district for his actions, what can you fire someone for?” Coffman asked. “There ought to be an expeditious process for firing the Kirklands of the world when they do this to a school district. He really almost single-handedly created a financial catastrophe.”

Kirkland and the district already have agreed to seek mediation to help resolve the case. Mediation, billed as a nonconfrontational approach to resolving conflicts, has become an increasingly popular approach to dealing with contract disputes. But unlike a court trial, mediation sessions are private.

Trevor Hughes can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 220, or by e-mail at thughes@times-call.com.

 

 
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