August 6, 2016
How do you go from winning a work-related Peacemaker Award one year, to being told you are unfit for employment the next?
By working for the Minneapolis Public Schools, of course.
For the past few years, Elisabeth Geschiere has worked for Check and Connect, a dropout prevention program at Washburn High School. Geschiere is “conversationally fluent” in Spanish, and has worked closely with the school’s Latino population as both support staff and an advisor for the Latino Club. In 2015, she was lauded on the school’s website as “one of a very select group of nominees” to be considered for the district’s Peacemaker Award, which Geschiere then won. The website announcement ends on a high note:
We thank Elisabeth for her tireless commitment to equity, peace, for the students at Washburn.
Now, Geschiere has found herself on the nail end of the district’s often bludgeon-like HR hammer. This spring, students in the Latino Club became upset when the Chicano Studies course they had been told was coming to Washburn was instead rolled into a more general “American Civil Rights” class. The school cited low enrollment as the reason the class had to be scrapped. (Adding more ethnic studies courses is a new focus for MPS, but the classes are electives and thus not required.)
On a day when Geschiere happened to be out sick, the students met with Washburn principal Rhonda Dean to express their dismay over the situation, vowing to make their concerns public at the next school board meeting. When Geshciere returned to work the next day, she says Dean asked her to help the students try to boost the enrollment of the Chicano Studies course they wanted, in order to keep it alive as a possibility. (The students say they have proof that, during their meeting with her, Dean also told them to ask Geschiere for help.)
Geschiere says that is just what she did, by sending out emails to fellow Washburn staffers, alerting them to the course, and otherwise supporting the Latino Club students in their push to make the ethnic studies course a reality.
Somehow, though, Dean accused Geschiere of telling her students to go to the school board meeting with their complaints. On May 12, one week after Dean asked her to help the students drum up enrollment, Geschiere says Dean called her boss, Colleen Kaibel. Dean wanted Kaibel to “immediately remove” Geschiere from her position–but not until the school’s upcoming Multicultural Arts Festival took place. “I know she is doing good work on that, and the students are excited about it,” Dean told Kaibel, according to Gescheire’s records.
Side note: Geschiere and her Latino Club students started the annual Multicultural Arts Festival three years ago. According to Geschiere, the festival “attracts around 300 parents, students, staff, and community members and happens to showcase Washburn students’ diverse backgrounds and talents as well as the arts.”
Next, Geschiere says she was called to a meeting with the Washburn principal, as well as an assistant administrator and district HR associate, Emma Hixson. During the meeting, Geschiere says she was told that she was “inciting students” and acting “beyond the scope of her duties as Check and Connect staff”–something she was not faulted for when helping to set up the Multicultural Arts Festival, mostly on her own time.)
Weeks later, on June 27, Geschiere received a letter from Hixson. In icy tones, Hixson’s letter accuses Geschiere of telling the students to go to the school board with their concerns about the Chicano Studies course:
Your actions in this matter were outside the scope of your duties as a Check and Connect staff person and inappropriate for your advisory role with the Latino Club outside the duty day. If students brought concerns to you, you should have brought those concerns directly to the administration. It is not constructive or appropriate to take the time of professional staff with questioning, nor is it appropriate for you to have discussed the matter of school curriculum with (other staff).
Finally, Hixson brings the hammer down in the last line of her letter:
This document will be placed in your personnel file and evidence that you are not recommended for rehire with Minneapolis Pubic Schools.
Geschiere says this letter was labeled a “Written Reprimand,” but was clearly intended to end her five-year career in the district. There is no due process apparent here; only a cold note, informing Geschiere of her wrongdoing, which Geschiere insists is based on false information. Moreover, questions linger about what, exactly, Geschiere is being accused of.
If her alleged crime is talking with students about going to the school board to advocate for themselves, is this considered worthy of dismissal in the eyes of the Minneapolis Public Schools?
Hixson’s suspiciously toxic letter still sits in Geschiere’s file, although she has written letters to the district’s HR director, Steven Barrett, asking to have Hixson’s letter removed. (She has also received support from her union, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.) After receiving no reply from Barrett, Geschiere wrote to the district’s new superintendent, Ed Graff, and the district’s Chief of Schools, Michael Thomas.
When she also received no reply from these district higher-ups, some of Geschiere’s friends organized a “phone/email zap” on August 5, asking supporters to flood MPS with this message:
I am writing/calling in regard to the unfair treatment of MPS employee Elisabeth Geschiere by the Washburn Administration and HR Department. Geschire has been an outstanding support for marginalized students at Washburn and it appears she is being punished for that. She did nothing wrong. She simply supported students from Latinx Club as their staff advisor. The claims by the Washburn Administration, and subsequently HR, that Ms. Geschiere “incited students” are not only patently false, they are disrespectful to the students who took the initiative to advocate for themselves. I ask you to do the right thing and immediately remove the “letter of no re-hire” dated June 7, 2016 from Ms. Geschiere’s MPS file.
By mid-afternoon on August 5, a message on the Facebook event page created on Geschiere’s behalf held this message: “The public pressure is working! Keep it up y’all! The superintendent reached out to set up a meeting with Elisabeth for Monday. Will keep you posted!”
Geschiere’s experience with Minneapolis’s seemingly hot-headed HR department is just the latest in a string of high-profile encounters between staff and the district, indicating a pattern of behavior some might consider abusive:
- July 12: Parents, teachers, students and staff from Barton Open School flood Superintendent Graff’s debut school board meeting, advocating on behalf of teachers investigated by Barton’s new principal, Jonas Beugen. District administrator Michael Thomas recently announced his continued support for Beugen, and blamed the Barton events–documented here–on problematic district “procedures and practices.”
- June 9: Questions emerge about the conduct of Minneapolis administrator, Lucilla Davila, who was then put on leave by the district. Davila was running a nonprofit that did business with the Minneapolis schools, and was responsible for the placement of several principals–including Whittier’s Norma Gibbs. In May, Whittier parents went public with their own complaints about Gibbs and Davila, including the attempted firing of a beloved Whittier staff member.
- June 8: Geschiere’s coworker, popular Washburn theater teacher Crystal Spring, is threatened with termination by HR director Barrett after being arrested while off work. In a letter sent to Spring, Barrett upbraided Spring and seemed to cast judgment on her actions, telling her it was “troublesome on multiple levels.” Charges were later dropped against Spring, who also had her job restored after a public demonstration on her behalf.
There has been no official word since June regarding Davila’s status. Geschiere has resigned from MPS, a decision she says she made before being put through the HR wringer. Still, before she leaves, Geschiere wants the district to acknowledge and correct the “appalling” and unjust treatment she and her supporters believe she has received–not just for her own sake, but also in light of acknowledged district-level patterns of “problematic” HR practices.
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