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Sarasota Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017 2 years ago

School Board will pay superintendent's legal fees in discrimination investigation

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Ahead of the investigation, Todd Bowden is entitled to an attorney paid for by the School Board, according to its interpretation of his contract.
by: Cassidy Alexander Staff Writer

After a discrimination complaint was filed against Sarasota County Schools and Superintendent Todd Bowden, the school board voted to hire an outside investigator to look into the complaint, as well as reimburse Bowden for attorneys fees associated with the investigation.

In late 2016, Bowden was accused of harassing employees and creating a hostile work environment. An investigation at that time deemed the allegations against Bowden to be inconclusive.

In November of this year, a complaint was filed by an employee who said she was retaliated against for coming forward previously.

At a Dec. 12 meeting, board members unanimously voted to direct School Board Chair Bridget Ziegler, District Legal Counsel Art Hardy and Assistant Superintendent Scott Lempe to hire an outside investigator to look into the complaints.

“I think that it would be more fair to those employees certainly and have a process that is free of any claims of bias,” Hardy told board members.

At the same meeting, board members had to decide what to do about a request from Bowden for the board to pay for him to hire an attorney, pursuant to his contract.

Todd Bowden

“The Board will defend, hold harmless and indemnify the Superintendent against all civil demands, criminal proceedings, claims, suits, actions and legal proceedings brought against the superintendent individually or in his capacity as agent or employee of the board, which may arise while the Superintendent is acting within the scope of his employment,” the contract states.

“If any matter covered by (the paragraph above) the Board determines that the superintendent should engage separate legal counsel, it shall be at the expense of the Board.”

Hardy left the interpretation up to board members, who had to decide if the discrimination complaint fit the criteria of the contract. Hardy said it could be read either way, but Bowden could accuse the board of breaching the contract if it didn’t agree to expense the attorney.

Most board members were in favor of funding an attorney for Bowden.

“To say that we wouldn’t have anticipated anything like this … yeah, really?” said board member Shirley Brown. “This is covered. I don’t think there’s anyone here less wanting to have to hire an attorney than Dr. Bowden in this, but it’s come back again, he is now our superintendent and I think we now have to follow the contract.”

Board member Eric Robinson had concerns over other employees in similar suits in the future.

“Am I going to have teachers coming up here, custodians saying ‘you gave this to the superintendent, why won’t you give it to me?’”

Hardy said that although the Superintendent, who oversees all other district employees, would have the decision to hire counsel for an employee, the simple answer is that Bowden’s contract entitles him to legal counsel while other employees’ don’t.

Robinson voted in favor of the paying for Bowden’s attorney, but expressed hope that the complainant will be afforded a similar opportunity by her supervisor.

Ziegler was the only member to vote against paying for Bowden’s attorney, arguing that it’s too soon in the process of the investigation to know if it’s merited.

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