Top Peoria Unified official’s appeal denied, outside counsel finds no discrimination

By Philip Haldiman, Independent Newsmedia

A complaint from a top administrator at Peoria Unified School District claiming she was denied equal opportunity for an executive position has been considered unfounded.

Administrator Alison Bridgewater alleged she was not given the opportunity to apply for the executive director of secondary education position by Chief Instructional Officer Steve Savoy.

A district investigation by former Superintendent Darwin Stiffler and Chief Personnel Officer Carter Davidson found no gender discrimination or violation of district policy, but Ms. Bridgewater appealed the decision and requested outside counsel to further investigate her complaint.

Consequently, the PUSD Governing Board approved attorney Donald Peters to investigate the case, who concluded Ms. Bridgewater’s failure to get the job was not due to gender bias.

Mr. Peters said in his investigation report that in his impression all the individuals he spoke with were credible and told the truth as they remembered it.

Ms. Bridgewater and Mr. Savoy have multiple decades of experience individually with PUSD.

“Although the issue is murky in some regards, nothing other than Ms. Bridgewater’s speculation suggested that her gender was a factor in her not being chosen for the position …,” Mr. Peters stated in the report. “Based on everything I learned, I was left with a firm conclusion that Ms. Bridgewater’s failure to get the job she wanted was not due to gender bias.”

In the appeal, Ms. Bridgewater also contended Mr. Davidson violated confidentiality requirements by discussing a meeting she had with him about Mr. Savoy. However, the investigation concluded no evidence supported the contention that Mr. Davidson breached any duty of confidentiality.

Mr. Peters did not respond to questions about the investigation.

THE COMPLAINT

In June, Ms. Bridgewater filed a complaint with the Human Resources Department alleging that Mr. Savoy in April had engaged in discriminatory conduct and denied her an equal opportunity to obtain the position of executive director of secondary education on the basis of gender. At the time, Ms. Bridgewater held the position of Administrator for K-12 Academic Services.

Mr. Stiffler stated that of the existing district administrators, only Ms. Bridgewater had sufficient experience with high schools to be considered for this position, but concluded he wanted a change and that more of an innovator was needed for the position, so he “thought” he asked Mr. Savoy, who was in charge of the hiring process, to look for someone outside the PUSD administration, according to the report.

However, the report stated Mr. Savoy did not remember being told this. Yet, the report stated that Dr. Stiffler thought it was his decision not to choose Ms. Bridgewater for the vacant position and that Mr. Savoy was abiding by his choice.

When Ms. Bridgewater inquired about the position in April, Mr. Savoy told her he had someone else in mind for the position. She claims that around that time Mr. Savoy said his mind was made up to go in a different direction with the position and she would not be considered for the position. Consequently, she did not apply for the job.

Mr. Savoy did not deny discouraging her interest in the position and adamantly denied she could not apply for the position, the report said.

Additionally, the report stated that nobody questioned for the investigation disagreed with the opinion that Ms. Bridgewater was not qualified for the secondary education position.

“(Mr. Savoy) was working closely with Dr. Stiffler during this time period, however, and it seems very likely that he became aware of Dr. Stiffler’s disinclination to choose Ms. Bridgewater. If so, that would account for the firmness of his view that Ms. Bridgewater was not going to get the position. … I think it is more likely that his comments to Ms. Bridgewater were done to his understanding of Dr. Stiffler’s view,” Mr. Peters stated.

‘THREE GALS’

In her complaint filed with the district, June 15, Ms. Bridgewater stated the reason she decided to take action: In May she, Mr. Savoy and others conducted elementary school principal interviews, and during a meeting to decide hirings she said Mr. Savoy stated he had concerns with “three gals running a school” that already had two female assistant principals.

Others corroborated this statement, according to a public records request.

Mr. Peter’s report stated Ms. Bridgewater viewed the comment as indicating that Mr. Savoy was discriminating on the basis of gender, but she acknowledged that she had no grounds other than the “three gals” comment for concluding that gender discrimination was involved in her situation.

Mr. Peters stated that Mr. Savoy’s comment about the “three gals” was unacceptable, and the administration’s response to that comment was “appropriate and sufficient,” and that Ms. Bridgewater’s failure to get the job she wanted was not due to gender bias and did not constitute discrimination in any employment decision, according to the investigation report. Nor did Mr. Peters conclude that Mr. Savoy’s disrespectful reference to women revealed a propensity to discriminate against women in job decisions.

Mr. Peters said the complaint Mr. Bridgewater filed indicates that it was only when Mr. Savoy made the “three gals” comment about a month later that she came to believe he had discouraged her from pursuing the vacant job position because she was female. This implies that when her earlier conversations with Mr. Savoy occurred, she was unaware of anything else to indicate that gender was a factor, Mr. Peters stated.

“The evidence indicated to me that Ms. Bridgewater was not favored for the vacant job position for legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons,” he stated in the report. “The ‘three gals’ comment, made weeks later when discussing a different individual in a different context, does not convince me that Ms. Bridgewater was denied a fair chance at the vacant job position because of her gender.”

Mr. Savoy acknowledged the remark was inappropriate, he regretted it, and he has consistently acknowledged that he should not have made the remark, according to the report. But he added his reservations about the candidate had nothing to do with her gender. He stated the comment was not meant to be offensive and that gender diversity is a consideration in staffing schools, and that there are advantages to having administrators of both genders when it was feasible.

The report also mentions that Mr. Savoy had previously shown himself to be willing to have women as principals.

Additionally, Mr. Stiffler stated the comment was inappropriate and spoke to Mr. Savoy about it.

“In my view, that was an appropriate response to the incident,” Mr. Peters said.

However, in Mr. Peters’ investigation of the dispute, he stated Mr. Savoy was not a helpful witness and had the weakest recollection of details of any individuals interviewed.

The inquiry was complicated by the fact that Ms. Bridgewater and Mr. Savoy had very strong emotions about the dispute,  developed fixed and adversarial views of the underlying events, and both were reluctant to concede anything that might help the other’s position, he stated.

“Those views inevitably colored the answers they gave me. That is not uncommon. I did not have the sense that either individual was being dishonest,” Mr. Peters stated.

In an emailed statement to Peoria Today Mr. Savoy apologized for his comment: “As was shared in the report, I am deeply sorry if my remarks were at all offensive, as that was not the intent. I am hopeful our staff will forgive this error and we can work together to continue to advance this great district. I remain committed to our staff and students and to working collectively moving forward.”

In an emailed statement to Peoria Today, Ms. Bridgewater stated: “It has been my honor to serve PUSD for more than 30 years. Earlier this year, I witnessed and was the recipient of actions which I believe are counter to the values the district upholds. It is my sincere hope that bringing these issues to light will in some way bring about positive changes in conduct and in culture which will ensure fairness, respect and equal access to opportunities for all PUSD employees.”

REORGANIZATION

As one of Mr. Stiffler’s first proposals as superintendent during the 2016-17 school year, PUSD reorganized its district-level administration, which called for two executive directors to supervise elementary schools and one executive director to supervise high schools. These three executive directors report to the chief instructional officer, who reports to the superintendent.

At the time of the dispute, Mr. Savoy was transferring into his new position as chief instructional officer while the three other executive positions were in the process of being filled.

Ms. Bridgewater was selected to be one of the two executive directors responsible for elementary schools, and she holds that position today.

The district has six employees who hold executive director positions — four females and two males. The average salary for males is $96,393 and the average for females is $98,667, according to district officials.

Since the appeal was completed in November, the PUSD Governing Board ousted Mr. Stiffler at a public meeting Dec. 7 for personnel problems and other issues not made public. At the same meeting, the board approved Mr. Savoy to fulfill the superintendent’s duties until  an interim superintendent is appointed, which is likely to occur in the next month.



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