An attorney representing Woodburn School District Superintendent Oscar Moreno Gilson, who is on paid administrative leave, filed a tort claim notice against the school district on Tuesday.
In the notice, Maria Witt, Moreno Gilson’s attorney, said her client was “targeted and retaliated against for attempting to institute a culture of accountability” within the Woodburn School District.
Moreno Gilson assumed the top role in Woodburn last summer. In the notice, Witt said Moreno Gilson started his time at Woodburn by restructuring the district’s senior leadership team and making changes based on the Oregon Department of Education’s Every Student Belongs rule, which prohibits hate symbols and requires districts to adopt policies around bias incidents.
“Mr. Moreno Gilson received positive feedback for his focus on accountability and equity from WSD employees and Board members,” Witt said in the notice.
But the claim said the superintendent faced pushback from some district employees, and that his leave was “prompted” by a complaint from a senior district employee.
The Woodburn school board voted to place Moreno Gilson on administrative leave in late January while an outside investigator looked into a personnel complaint, board chair Anthony Medina said at the time.
Moreno Gilson intends to sue the district for claims including breach of contract, retaliation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Gilson’s contract is set to last until June 2023.
According to his attorney, Moreno Gilson submitted the notice Tuesday afternoon. Several hours later, the board held a special meeting that included a private, executive session.
The board’s agenda lists the subject of the session “to consider information or records that are exempt by law from public inspection.” A different document from the district said the executive session would also concern “the dismissal or disciplining of, or to hear complaints or charges brought against, a public officer, employee, staff member, or individual agent who does not request an open hearing.”
Witt said the board voted on Tuesday to send Superintendent Moreno Gilson a “Notice of Action,” though it is unknown what that notice contains.
In a statement sent to OPB Thursday afternoon, board chair Medina said, “The Woodburn School District has a practice of not commenting on litigation or personnel issues. We wish Mr. Moreno Gilson well in his future endeavors.”
In another statement sent a few minutes later, the second sentence was removed.
Medina said currently, the district’s focus is “on welcoming students, their families and the Woodburn community safely back to our schools and facilities.” He said community support made reopening possible.
In an email sharing the tort claim notice, Witt included a quote from Craig Hawkins, the director of Coalition of Oregon School Administrators, a statewide group representing school executives. Hawkins said the quote is from a recommendation letter that speaks of “our work with him at the state level”.
“Oscar is a leader with resounding personal and professional integrity. He has helped to foster an environment of trust that empowers school and district leaders to be vulnerable as they strive to center equity and commit to the success of each and every student,” Hawkins wrote. “Oscar’s commitment to closing opportunity gaps and putting students first resonates with colleagues from large and small districts throughout Oregon.”
The Woodburn Education Association, the union representing Woodburn teachers, said Thursday “while we are not privy to the details of any alleged investigation involving our superintendent, we are beginning to have some suspicions about what is going on.”
WEA President Kathy Kuftin and Vice President Tony Salm said on Friday that there’s a “high level of anxiety” among her members about the news and that communication hasn’t been clear.
When Moreno Gilson first arrived, Kuftin said he met with the union immediately, something she said hadn’t happened with previous leaders.
“Educators were hopeful that this would be this person from the outside who’s willing to engage authentically,” Kuftin said.
Salm said Moreno Gilson had been working on changing longtime issues in Woodburn. And his communication with school staff continued over the year.
“He was much more open than previous superintendents to talking to us frequently... we certainly had disagreements, we clashed on various issues, but it was out in the open,” Salm said. “It was honest.”