Employee resigns after feeling targeted by Mehlville administrators

By Alyson E. Raletz

An Oakville Middle School counselor clerk recently submitted her resignation after believing she had been targeted by Mehlville School District administrators.

In the past few months, her husband publicly has criticized the school district. It is because of this criticism, she told the Call, that she has been singled out to “shut him up.”

Dan Fowler, who served three terms on the Board of Education, writes an occasional column for the Call, “Your Call.”

His most recent column criticized board President Cindy Christopher for suggesting that the current district nepotism policy was too restrictive and should be re-examined. In his column, Fowler contended the existing nepotism policy should remain unchanged.

His wife, Sandy Fowler, has worked as a part-time counselor clerk at Oakville Middle for four years. During those four years, she has been required to work 15 hours a week. She has had a flexible schedule, typically working from 10 a.m. into the afternoon Monday through Thursday and taking Friday off because of a prior commitment — until Monday, Oct. 27. On that day at 11:30 a.m. Oakville Middle Principal Vicki VanLaere gave her a memo stating that counselor clerks needed to change their working hours to 9 a.m. to noon Monday to Friday.

The Oct. 24 memo addressed to Fowler stated, “Any deviation in the work schedule will be grounds for dismissal.”

Sandy Fowler is the only counselor clerk at Oakville Middle.

“I was really shocked and taken aback,” Sandy Fowler said. “It was like I had been hit by a ton of bricks. There were just so many things at the school already that needed to be worked out … There’s a new principal and assistant principal. I thought it was very unnerving that the thing they think needed fixed the worst is a part-time clerical aide position … It was weird they needed take care of that right now.”

After a conference call with Superintendent Tim Ricker and other district administrators along with a meeting with Oakville Middle administrators and counselors, Sandy Fowler decided to resign and submitted her notice Oct. 29.

“With the different things that were said during that conference call to Ricker and at that meeting, I felt that I would not be effective in the position,” Fowler said. “The trust was broken with the principal. Even though I worked with the counselors, the principal still was my supervisor.”

When VanLaere was contacted for comment and a message was left on her voice mail, Community Relations Director Patrick Wallace instead contacted the Call. He said he wanted to know why the Call had contacted VanLaere and said she would not be able to comment on personnel issues. Questions about policy changes could be discussed with Ricker, Wallace said.

On Monday, Nov. 3 VanLaere contacted the Call and said she would grant an interview, but only in Wallace’s presence.

When asked about the memo VanLaere gave Sandy Fowler, she answered virtually every question saying she could not comment on personnel matters.

However, VanLaere did say that in August, she and the vice principal evaluated hours for every staff member.

“We had an office staff meeting, we spoke with everyone what hours were expected, etc. …” she said. ” … I’m saying the August meeting contained specific hours we expected all office staff to follow.”

She said the counselor clerk’s schedule for 9 a.m. to noon Mondays through Fridays was discussed at that meeting.

When asked why the counselor clerk hours were changed after four years of permitting Sandy Fowler to have a flexible schedule, VanLaere said, “I can’t speak to four years. We looked at all the positions … This was done in August …”

Initially, she said she could not comment on whether the decision to change scheduling for the counselor clerk position came from her or an administrator in Central Office. However, during the same interview, she later said, “It was a building-level decision. I couldn’t comment why the public would speculate otherwise … The public certainly wouldn’t be hearing anything from this office …”

Ricker told the Call he also would not comment on or provide information on any personnel matters. “The setting of working hours is done in combination with human resources in conjunction with all of our policies on classified and certified personnel.

“It is specifically related to a personnel issue, of which, again we don’t comment ….” he said of the motivation behind the work scheduling change. “But we do have standards in employee practices for classified individuals in that category across the district. When I say standards, it’s not a written standard. It’s the understanding that people who do the work that is in relationship to the job description have certain things and certain times during the day that they have to work.”

When asked if the action taken requiring Sandy Fowler to change the work schedule she had for four years was a personal attack on her or her husband, Dan Fowler, for anything he had said or written, Ricker said, “Absolutely not … Nothing that we would do with any individual employee is directly or indirectly related to anything other than getting the work done that needs to be done in the buildings for the kids.”

A.D. McClain, assistant superintendent of human resources and also the point of reference listed at the bottom of the memo sent to Sandy Fowler, told the Call that building principals have the right to set hours for the building’s classified employees.

“Counselors are at school five days a week and if people are there to help them they need to be there five days a week,” McClain said. “It was not meeting the needs of the counselors.”

McClain said that the memo requiring counselor clerks at Oakville Middle School to fulfill certain hour requirements was not a change in school policies or procedures. At the beginning of the school year, he said expected hour obligations were discussed with all staff members.

However, Sandy Fowler contends she never was told to adhere to that specific work schedule at the beginning of the year.

On Oct. 27, she said VanLaere told her the memo came straight from McClain.

“She (VanLaere) told me, at that time, that this was out of the blue and she had no idea why this was happening,” Sandy Fowler told the Call.

She said in August, during an informal beginning-of-the-year office meeting, that a counselor had wanted her to fulfill more specific hours. Since both the principal and vice principal were new this year, she said she expressed her wish to continue with her prior schedule because she had Friday morning commitments.

Both administrators told her, she said, that it seemed her schedule had worked in the past and as long as “everything went OK” this year, no changes needed to be made.

“Nothing has come from Mrs. VanLaere about hours since that meeting. I had heard through different things that she has said that she has talked to counselors about it, she talked to A.D. McClain about it, but she never came and talked to me about it.”

When she got home that day after 2 p.m., she said she called Ricker to find out why she no longer could continue with her prior schedule. Her communication with Ricker turned into a conference call with Ricker, McClain and VanLaere.

“At that time, McClain told me that it was not his decision, but a building decision, which meant it was VanLaere’s decision …” Fowler said. “That’s when things got kinda ugly. That’s when it became clear Mrs. VanLaere knew about it … I know Central Office and the school board are not happy with Dan’s (Fowler) opinion column … I don’t think this came out of the blue. I think Vicki knew what was going to happen. I think it came from Central Office. In our building I am the only counselor clerk … I was the only one affected.”

Since it was a “building decision,” she said, the group suggested that the conflict could be solved at the building level.

At 10 a.m. Oct. 28, Fowler said she met with VanLaere, Assistant Principal Jay Holtmeyer and the two counselors Larry McCauley and Judy Jennewein. They came to the conclusion, she said, that Fowler needed to work at the school five days a week and not have Friday off.

“But I asked them several times what objectives they had in doing this …,” she said. “But they gave no answer. They said they wanted me to have set hours to make the office more professional and to coincide more with what other schools in the district were doing.”

At the end of the meeting, she said, the group told her that her schedule could be 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Thursday and then on Fridays, because of her commitment, she could work 1 to 4 p.m.

Even though schedule changes had been claimed to be “building decisions,” she said Van Laere told her she could not make the decision to change her schedule without “talking to Dr. McClain first,” but until she heard from him, Sandy Fowler could assume that was her new schedule.

Sandy Fowler said VanLaere never confirmed the new schedule with her and she submitted her resignation. “I just feel that this was the one way they probably figured they could really shut him (her husband) up,” she said.

Dan Fowler told the Call he believes the administration and board members are unhappy with the columns he has written and are getting back at him through their only avenue — his wife.

“I never thought in my wildest dreams they would target one of my family members,” Dan Fowler said. “Unfortunately this has nothing to do with my wife and everything to do with me. She is an innocent victim of retribution.”

He said that he had a recent telephone conversation with board President Cindy Christopher during which she expressed her dissatisfaction with his columns. He said his column urging that the nepotism policy remain unchanged “was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“She said she was going to come after me with everything that she has. She said: ‘With everything I’ve got …,”’ he recalled.

Christopher told the Call she would not respond to Dan Fowler’s assertions nor would she comment on any personnel situation.