Legal Education

The story of Kelly Munsell, a former TUSD teacher who claims she was improperly fired

While teaching second-graders at Erickson Elementary School for the past 12 years, Kelly Munsell never received a parent complaint. She had seven years of good reviews from the principal she worked with before the school hired new leadership in 2005.

Today, Munsell is out of work, fired supposedly because of inadequate performance--and she wonders how she allowed the Tucson Unified School District to kill her teaching career.

Shortly after the beginning of the 2005 school year at the eastside school, Munsell says, principal Helen LePage gave her a list of performance issues to correct--within a month.

Munsell says that at first, she didn't feel targeted, because other teachers were also issued recommendations. That changed, however, when Munsell injured her hand while opening a can of soda, and she was asked to see a doctor for a fit-for-duty exam.

Munsell--who successfully battled Hodgkin's disease when she was 17 and breast cancer at 27--says her principal wondered if she was a danger to the children and asked if the hand injury could be related to cancer. However, Munsell got approval to continue working and later had minor surgery for tendinitis.

Just days before winter break, Munsell was escorted off campus by then-TUSD attorney Nancy Coomer and a Tucson Education Association (TEA) representative. Munsell says she was told she was assigned to the TUSD legal department while on administrative leave, although termination-hearings records say the leave paperwork was never filed.

Munsell contends she was told that if she didn't leave the school, she'd be arrested, and that if she discussed her administrative leave with anybody, she would be fired and could never work within TUSD again. She says she did what was asked of her and kept quiet.

The Tucson Weekly contacted Coomer and was told the attorney was assigned to look at a psychological fitness-for-duty request made by Munsell's school administrator. Coomer says she is unable to comment due to attorney-client privilege, since TUSD is a former client.

Munsell says she did go to a TUSD-recommended psychologist for mental-health clearance. The report came back that Munsell was not fit for duty, but Munsell sought a second opinion with an independent psychologist, and that physician said Munsell was fit.

Munsell says she began calling the TEA office for help, and was assigned an attorney paid for by the teachers' union. The lawyer contacted the school district, and all communication between Munsell and Coomer ceased.

Munsell spent the remainder of the school year hoping to return to Erickson. Munsell says she was counseled against returning; today, she says she probably should have listened.

In May 2006, Munsell received a letter saying she could return for the 2006-2007 school year. In November, Munsell was issued a "plan for improvement" by her principal--what some teacher advocates say is the first step school administrators take to fire a teacher.

In May 2007, Munsell received a statement saying that she did not meet improvements sufficiently to continue teaching. At that point, she could resign or go through a hearing; Munsell chose the hearing.

Records submitted for the hearing by Munsell's attorney show that during the 2006-2007 school year, Munsell's students had high scores on all TUSD-administered exams; her fellow, undisciplined second-grade teachers had lower student scores.

Munsell, her attorney and TUSD officials went before Tucson attorney C. Ben Hufford, who acted as an independent hearings officer. Hufford eventually ruled in favor of the school district, despite testimony from fellow teachers who felt Munsell was singled out by the new principal, and despite praise from parents of former students.

Munsell then chose to go public in front of the TUSD Governing Board. At the Oct. 9, 2007, meeting, members Joel Ireland, Bruce Burke and Alex Rodriguez voted to terminate Munsell; Judy Burns and Adelita Grijalva voted not to fire her.

Munsell remains undiscouraged. She's filed a series of civil-rights complaints with the state Attorney General's Office, as well as State Bar of Arizona complaints against Ireland (who is an attorney) and Hufford.

Munsell says she can't afford the legal fees to appeal Hufford's decision. She also says several attorneys she's talked to refuse to take the case, because they know members of TUSD's legal team or have worked with TUSD.

In the bar complaint against Ireland, Munsell alleges that he never disclosed a friendship with Coomer during the school-board meeting. In the complaint against Hufford, Munsell alleges that the attorney dozed off during parts of the testimony and didn't disclose a prior legal relationship with TUSD. (See "Class Action," Tucson Weekly, June 20, 2002.)

Ireland says he doesn't think Munsell's complaint will lead to an investigation.

"It is true that Nancy Coomer and I are friends. ... She is a heck of a nice person. I didn't believe any of the accusations," Ireland says, although he admits the accusations made against Coomer by Munsell were enough to force TUSD not to renew Coomer's contract.

"She wanted to help (Munsell)," Ireland says. "The administration decided not to renew her contract, because they came to the conclusion she was advocating for (Munsell) and not for TUSD."

The Weekly contacted Robert Ross, of TUSD's legal department, to ask if the handling of Munsell's case warranted any policy changes. Chyrl Hill Lander, TUSD's director of communications and media relations, responded and asked that questions to Ross be submitted by e-mail.

Ross replied to the questions by saying that in July 2007, TUSD did change its administrative-leave policy. However, Ross wrote that the change was not in reaction to any case, but an update.

"The only time the legal department meets with a teacher in the context of performance or conduct issues is in a grievance hearing or negotiating the terms of a resignation, and then, the teacher almost always has association or legal representation," Ross wrote.

Ross also wrote teachers like Munsell, who have worked for the district longer than three years, usually resign rather than go through the termination process.

"Since I have been here, we have had only one continuing teacher go through the termination process, and that was Kelly Munsell," Ross wrote.

TUSD has faced civil-rights complaints by terminated teachers before, but the AG's Civil Rights Division has cleared the district in every case within the last 2 1/2 years, according to Ross.

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