Oregon Teacher of the Year Fired; MESD Claims Harassment “Misinterpretation”

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Brett Bigham By Matt Pizzuti, PQ Monthly If a story like this one could happen in in a city as famously LGBTQ-friendly as Portland, could any place really be safe? Brett Bigham, Oregon’s 2014 Teacher of the Year and out, gay Special Education teacher for the Multnomah Education Service District, isn’t claiming he was fired on April 3 directly for being gay. But as Bigham tells it, his sexual orientation is partly what triggered the cascade of conflicts and managerial abuses that led to the once-acclaimed teacher losing his job. In a press release, MESD Interim Superintendent Jim Rose said Bigham was fired for missing too much work and taking the focus away from students. “Brett is a great teacher,†Rose said, “Unfortunately, it became clear over time that Brett’s focus was no longer his classroom and students, as evidenced by excessive time away and distraction during class time.†Laura Conroy, a spokesperson for the district, said Bigham was fired because he refused mediation. Bigham said he’s kept records of his absences and the district’s records are “completely incorrect,†noting that the district offered him a 4-month leave of absence for Teacher of the Year appearances and he ended up taking much less. He describes a retaliatory work environment where supervisors made repeated efforts to silence him and search for petty grievances to punish him for, then scrambling for whatever reason they could find to force him out so that they wouldn’t be held accountable for previous infractions. The trouble began in January 2014, when a supervisor warned the newly-installed Oregon Teacher of the Year against saying that he’s gay in speeches. Bigham didn’t take the instruction seriously, and said his managers followed up by seeking to tamp down his public appearances, insisting that he get all his public statements pre-approved. With the teachers union’s support and the belief that sharing his story as he saw it is his Constitutional right, Bigham developed an increasingly resistant stance against what he believed to be managerial overreach, bullying, and harassment from MESD. He filed formal complaints with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, and later went to the press with emails from supervisors showing that they were pressuring him to withdraw the complaints. Bigham’s claims were credible enough to make news headlines, and stories that were critical of the district began to proliferate just as MESD put Bigham on a “plan of assistance†— the formal paperwork process that MESD and many other school districts use to build a case for disciplining or even firing a teacher. As that process continued, Bigham went on paid administrative leave March 22. The district, which hired an independent investigator to assess Bigham’s case, released its own report dismissing Bigham’s concerns about harassment, calling them a matter of misinterpretation. In a Facebook status update dated March 24, Bigham said the MESD report was “chock full of dishonesty†and said the district had altered the copy handed over to the press. Since Bigham was fired, he, his lawyer, and the teacher’s union have made a case to have him reinstated. “I believe the actions of MESD and the school board very clearly show they are indeed retaliating against me for filing my BOLI and TSPC complaints,†Bigham said. He said he’d only refused mediation under its unreasonable terms — that he drop his complaints against the district and that he agree to stop speaking to the press, he said. “Since MESD put out a statement that I refused mediation and was terminated because of that, I believe that is very clear they fired me because I would not accept mediation that required the BOLI investigation stop before they could rule on their findings and that I sign a nondisclosure agreement immediately,†he said. Bigham said his next step is waiting for the state to reach a conclusion on his BOLI complaint, at which point he’ll be clearer on where he stands. Until then, he’ll be taking things one day at a time. “To be unemployed is pretty scary when you’ve got student loans, a house payment, and a grownup life to pay for,†Bigham said. “But I think good will come of this. Right now it’s no fun, but I have to believe some good will come.â€