Thursday, December 30, 2021

Romulus superintendent sues school district

Dr. Benjamin Edmondson
Members of the Romulus Community Schools Board of Education have been named in a lawsuit claiming discrimination and harassment by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Benjamin Edmondson. Three members of the school board are also facing a recall effort based on the suspension of Edmondson during an investigation into district business office financial practices.

In his lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Michigan, Edmondson claims he was placed on indefinite leave and replaced with a less-qualified person and has endured a “sustained campaign of harassment” since he was named to the position in August of 2020.  During a Sept. 27 meeting of the board of education, the board members voted 4-3 to suspend Edmondson during the financial investigation.

Since then, board meetings have been contentious with public comments from union representatives, teachers, parents and staff members supporting Edmondson and protesting the board action. Romulus resident Rita Hampton has been vigorously attempting to recall Board President Debi Pyles and  Secretary Susan Evitts and Vice President Judy Kennard based on their actions in suspending  Edmondson. 

“I will not give up on this,” Hampton said.

Edmondson, who abruptly left the September board meeting immediately following the vote to suspend him, claims that his suspension was based on his whistleblower concerns regarding a violation of the Open Meetings Act by the board and racial discrimination. He claims that the district has been plagued with problems before he was hired and that Pyles, Kennard, Evitts and Trustee Nichole German created problems by interfering with his ability to perform his job and improve the school district, “and causing multiple District administrators and employees to quit.”

In his court filings, Edmondson noted that the district interim finance director, the executive director of K-12 instruction, the director of human resources and the payroll supervisor all resigned “due to problems with the four board members.”

Edmondson claims that during his 6-week absence recovering from heart surgery, the board members hired Dixon Public Consulting to investigate district finances. Shortly after his return to work, he claims, the board members voted to place a formal letter of reprimand into his employee file accusing him of failing to provide a key fob to Dixon employees or perform background checks on them and that he engaged in “defiant behavior” toward Pyles, among multiple other charges. 

Edmondson alleges that Evitts, as the secretary of the board, did not provide minutes of several meetings he requested in an effort to “comply with all board motions” and has violated the Open Meetings Act by failing to provide the minutes to the public in a timely manner.

Pyles said Edmondson was placed on leave in an effort to enable an independent investigation into “the serious dysfunctional operation of the District's Business Office” and said those problems “were not being addressed by the superintendent.” 

She also claimed in a posting on the district website that an auditor found “14 serious Business/Financial Office problems” last year of which “12 of those 14 problems remain unresolved going into this year's audit.” She said that Edmondson “did not provide any meaningful or concrete plan” to address the problems in the district's business and financial operations, and that he offered no plan to fill the interim finance director position.

Hampton, and many residents, have publicly criticized the board for hiring an interim superintendent at a higher daily rate of pay during what they describe as a “private meeting” before the vote to suspend Edmondson took place. Edmondson, in his lawsuit, claims that the interim superintendent is less qualified while being paid at a higher rate and suggests the pay rate is based on race. Edmonson is Black while the interim superintendent is White. 

As a result of the school board members conduct, he has “suffered significant reputational harm within the close-knit community of Michigan educators,” the suit alleges.

The statement from the district website claims that Edmondson “did not provide any meaningful or concrete plan” to address the problems in the district business and financial operations, and that he offered no plan to fill the interim finance director position.

Despite numerous efforts of three school board members to reinstate Edmondson, the proposal has met with adamant resistance from the four members who present a united front in refusing to consider a motion to reinstate him. A recent board meeting failed to proceed as members could not agree to accept the agenda as presented. Residents continue to vigorously protest and criticize board actions at meetings.

Edmondson is seeking compensatory and exemplary damages; attorney fees, costs and interest; and “other relief as this Court deems just and proper.”