Three former top administrators at the Gardner Edgerton School District have accepted a $1.8 million settlement from the district in exchange for dropping a lawsuit they filed after their 2014 firings.
The district’s insurer will pay most of that, but $550,000 will come out of the district’s taxpayer-funded budget.
Former superintendent Bill Gilhaus and two of his top aides had sought as much as $11 million in damages from the district and the four school board members who voted to fire them in what the plaintiffs contended was an illegal fashion. But an attorney for the three said had the case gone to trial in federal court, he would have asked for around $5 million.
In the settlement document, the school district and school board members denied any wrongdoing.
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But the plaintiff’s attorney, Dennis Egan at the Popham Law Firm, said the size of the settlement “shows you what happens when people act in a reckless fashion and violate due process and contract rights.”
Gilhaus, Christy Ziegler and Lana Gerber alleged that they were denied due process at what they contended was a hastily called illegal meeting where their terminations were announced.
Ziegler and Gerber also alleged they were subjected to sexual discrimination by board members Rob Shippy and Brad Chandler, both of whom were named as defendants.
Ziegler and Gerber said Shippy leered at them and was demeaning, calling them “sweetie” and “ladies.”
Chandler was accused of making off-color quips. At one meeting, Gerber sat next to Chandler and said something to the effect of “you must have drawn the short straw.”
According to court documents, “Chandler responded by loudly stating, ‘How do you know I have a short straw? I take personal offense to that,’ ” and laughed. Shippy laughed as well, Gerber contended.
The district’s attorneys denied that any sexually demeaning misconduct occurred, but acknowledged that Chandler referred to a tennis-equipment shed as “the love shack” while Gerber discussed updates to tennis courts at a planning committee meeting.
The other board members sued were Tresa Boden and Mary Nelson. All four remain on the seven-member board.
On Tuesday the district issued a statement that said the school board “strongly disagrees with the allegations made against its members and the district” but was glad to conclude the matter.
“In settling the case,” the statement read, “the Board decided that the responsible course of action was to eliminate financial risk in exchange for the opportunity to vindicate its position at trial.”
Gilhaus was superintendent of the suburban Kansas City district from 2004 to February 2014. During that decade, Gardner Edgerton’s enrollment grew from 3,400 to 5,400 students.
Gilhaus persuaded the community to approve two bond issues totaling $120 million for new schools and fixing up old ones to accommodate the growth. He also was credited with raising test scores and boosting the district’s reputation.
The year before Gilhaus was let go, U.S. News & World Report ranked Gardner Edgerton High School sixth best among the 369 public, charter and magnet high schools in Kansas.
But he also was a controversial figure. Some teachers and staff members claimed his demanding style created a culture of fear and intimidation. The school board members who fired him said they wanted to rid the district of what they thought was a toxic atmosphere.
It also rankled some that in 2013 a different set of school board members rehired Gilhaus immediately after he filed for retirement benefits. Although legal, his double-dipping didn’t sit well with some in the community.
Ziegler has gone to become assistant superintendent for innovation and performance at the Shawnee Mission School District and Gerber is executive director of administrative services at the Turner Unified School District.
But Gilhaus has found difficulty finding another job as a superintendent and hopes his prospects will improve now that the settlement has been reached.
“I loved education,” Gilhaus said. “I’m one of those fortunate people who, if you find something that you love to do, you never work a day in your life.”