Teacher firing heads to challenge phase
ORANGE PARK – The Clay County Education Association is challenging the Feb. 21 firing of an Orange Park Junior High teacher for having had a stun gun in a locked cabinet in her classroom last year.
Tracy Butler, association service unit director, said the Clay County School Board vote to fire Helena Feuerborn did "not rise to the level of termination and the punishment does not fit the crime." Butler and the CCEA filed the legal challenge to Feuerborn’s firing on Feb. 20. Feuerborn was fired on a 5-0 school board vote despite never having been charged with a crime in the incident.
Under Florida law, it is a third degree felony to bring a stun gun or other types of electronic weapons on the campus of a from page 1
public school. It is also against school district policy.
Clay County Sheriff’s Office Det. Ken Rodgers said a substitute teacher found the stun gun in a locked filing cabinet in Feuerborn’s classroom last September while searching for teaching supplies. Feuerborn was never contacted about the stun gun until January as she was out on maternity leave and, while out, was having health issues relating to her recent pregnancy.
"I was brought into the case at the conclusion of Christmas break and was given the information and told to contact any necessary people upon their return back to school," Rodgers said in a Feb. 26 telephone interview. "[Feuerborn] told me she had it for self-defense and had forgotten about it," Rodgers said. "She said that it didn’t work and that she thought she had thrown it away."
After gathering all of the data surrounding the incident, Rodgers sat down and reviewed the case with Assistant State Attorney Khary Gaynor to determine the validity of the case. They mutually agreed there was no case to prosecute. Rodgers was brought in on the case Jan. 7 and met with Gaynor Jan. 10.
"It was decided at the time she would not be charged," Rodgers said. "The case was determined to be exceptionally clear and prosecution declined."
Rodgers said that on Jan. 28 and 29, he went back into the CCSO evidence locker--where the stun gun had sat since September--to retrieve the stun gun in order to photograph the inoperable weapon for Toni McCabe, assistant superintendent for human resources. McCabe did not return phone calls for this story.
Feuerborn was only notified 48 hours prior to the Feb. 21 school board meeting in which her case would come up for a vote. There was no open discussion regarding her case as most personnel issues are protected under the state’s Open Records laws. However, school board attorney Bruce Bickner made a point at the meeting to explain why Feuerborn’s case, and one other case involving a teacher resignation, had been placed on the agenda after the agenda had been posted, which would usually result in a violation of the state’s Administrative Procedures Act governing open meetings.
Bickner said the agenda items had met the standard for "good cause" to be placed on the agenda after he held a telephone conference with McCabe, Deputy Superintendent Denise Adams and school board Chairman Carol Studdard. Studdard, as chairman, approved the items being placed on the agenda. Bickner did not return phone calls for this story.
"To quote an attorney with whom I have discussed the case, she would have been more dangerous with a ketchup bottle than this inoperable stun gun," Butler said. "We are filing for wrongful termination because, it is our position that the school board broke her contract without just cause. We’re not convinced Mrs. Feuerborn committed a felony."
Butler said Feuerborn, under the new school district leadership, never had a chance to face her accuser nor had a chance to respond to the charges prior to the school board taking up her pending firing.
"The teacher, or representative, is contrary to the law, being denied any information about the accuser, the specific claims, the basic allegation details, until the time of the final disposition," Butler told the school board prior to considering Feuerborn’s firing. "Yes, the teacher is called in for questioning, however there is no other opportunity for defense, no opportunity for the teacher to face his or her accuser, no opportunity for questioning or challenging of the validity of the claims prior to the recommendation for termination. This is unacceptable practice and contrary to the Constitution of our country."
At the meeting, no school board members questioned McCabe’s recommendation to fire Feuerborn. Instead, board member Janice Kerekes made the motion to accept McCabe’s recommendation to fire whom Butler described as "a seasoned and highly-effective teacher." The motion was seconded by first-term board member Johnna McKinnon.
Butler said the CCEA seeks to have Feuerborn re-instated to her position and be paid for any back wages and benefits owed her in the interim.
In other school board business Feb. 21, board members voted to accept the resignation of a 20-year teaching veteran whom Butler also described as highly-effective. The teacher, whose name was withheld, was also nationally-certified and any prior charges against her had been dropped.
Board members also discussed a first draft of a policy governing public comment and how it will be handled during school board meetings, as well as when developing meeting agendas.