Ex-Capeless teacher at whistleblower trial: Unpalatable choice offered

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PITTSFIELD — Within a month of notifying technical staff at Capeless Elementary School that Principal Candy Jezewski might know the location of missing equipment, Melissa Fawcett said, she was presented with two choices: accept an involuntary transfer or resign.

Fawcett testified Thursday that she was told she was given that choice "because you talked about Candy."

The former Capeless teacher took the stand Thursday in Berkshire Superior Court as testimony continued in a civil lawsuit filed by Fawcett under the whistleblower statute. She is suing the city and Jezewski, alleging that she was retaliated against for whistleblowing by being pushed out of her job.

In 2014, Fawcett was a fourth grade math and science teacher at Capeless. She also was the school's webmaster and part of the "innovation team," and as part of that role had added responsibilities regarding the school's technical hardware.

Among that hardware were 22 iPad minis, secured for the school via a grant and intended for use by two second grade classes. According to testimony, the two second grade classes each was allotted 10. Two others that were separately shipped were allocated for staff use.

During a routine inventory of the school's equipment June 9, 2014, two of the iPads were unaccounted for. Fawcett was asked by tech department staff if she knew where they were and said they should ask Jezewski about their whereabouts.

Fawcett testified that it was her understanding Jezewski had taken the iPads home but didn't convey that information to those who had asked. Before the end of the day, Fawcett said Jezewski angrily entered her classroom while students and other faculty were present and wanting to know if she had told the tech department that her children had possession of the iPads, which Fawcett denied having done.

Fawcett testified that she was sure that the incident was upsetting to the children who were present.

Over the course of the next week, Fawcett said, she was summoned to Jezewski's office on three occasions to be verbally reprimanded, though no official disciplinary action was taken. In each instance, Fawcett said Jezewski said "other people" had raised issues with her about Fawcett, including disparaging the value of staff meetings, complaining about the state of office equipment and divulging confidential information regarding the employment status of a fellow faculty member.

Fawcett said she believed that framing the conversations as things that were brought to her attention by other people was a retort to her suspicion that Fawcett had given the tech department information about the suspected use of the missing iPads.

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In an email introduced into evidence, Jezewski had described Fawcett's actions as throwing her under the bus.

Before those incidents, Fawcett said, she never had been disciplined on the job for any reason and, as recently as three days before the June 9 inventory, she had received an evaluation, signed by Jezewski, in which she was described as a "very valuable asset," to Capeless Elementary.

By June 13, Fawcett had put herself on a list making herself eligible for a voluntary transfer but said she did so mostly out of a naive hope that, in doing so, someone in the school district's administration would take note, find it odd and contact her to see what issues might be involved. But none of those things happened, she said.

On July 3, Fawcett was contacted by Superintendent Jason McCandless, who informed her that she was being involuntarily transferred to Egremont School, where she would be teaching a general fourth grade curriculum, rather than math and science, and no longer would be part of the innovation team, a position for which she received a stipend.

Fawcett testified that at a July 7 meeting with McCandless she was told she was being transferred because she talked about Jezewski. She said she asked several times why she was being transferred and that no other reason was given.

Fawcett said she felt the involuntary transfer was disciplinary action and a demotion and that, by accepting it, she would be taking on a curriculum with which she was not familiar and wouldn't have time to become proficient in it before the start of the school year.

Fawcett chose to resign instead.

Thursday's testimony closed with Fawcett describing her inability to find another teaching job in Berkshire County, despite sending out more than 30 applications and being granted interviews in most of those cases. She also talked about the financial hardships her family endured after being suddenly reduced to a one-income household.

Fawcett, represented by attorneys Mary Courtney and Michael Hinkley, is seeking damages including back pay, court costs and interest.

Her continued testimony and cross-examination by attorney Jeffrey J. Trapani are both expected Friday.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@berkshireeagle.com, at @BobDunn413 on Twitter and 413-496-6249.


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