Attorney pursing whistleblower case against school district

by nathan oster

A local attorney is pursuing a whistleblower retaliation claim against Big Horn County School District No. 3 as a result of its handling of an employee who complained about unsanitary conditions in the GHS/GMS lunchroom.

Speaking during the Community Remarks section of the Feb. 10 meeting, Tish Abromats told the school board she was there on behalf of Iryna Whaley, who was under suspension at the time from her job as a cook.

Abromats said Whaley went to work for the school district in October. In early November, she complained about what she felt were unsanitary buckets that were being taken in and out of the kitchen by an employee who was feeding the uneaten food to her farm animals.

Abromats said the buckets remained a point of contention between Whaley and her supervisor, Jep Miller, until a second meeting in mid January, when the “slop bucket” practice allegedly stopped. Abromats contends that Whaley was harassed by Miller virtually from the very start, calling her working conditions “intolerable.”

For about three days in January, they improved. But then Whaley had her evaluation. In it, she graded low for her ability to take instruction. It was at that point that she asked to speak with the superintendent, Barry Bryant. When she was suspended, Whaley initially refused to leave the premises. Police were called and she was criminally trespassed. She also faces a charge of impeding a police officer.

Bryant defended both Miller and the conditions of the lunchroom. He said he would shared with anyone copies of state inspection reports, all of which give the kitchen passing marks in the area of cleanliness and the handling of food.

Abromats said she disagrees, citing her own experience in food service. Before becoming an attorney, she owned Buffalo Rose on North Sixth Street in Greybull. “You cannot bring dirty buckets into a kitchen,” she said.

Jamie Flitner, who chairs the board, stopped the discussion there, with Bryant saying he’d share the reports and Abromats saying she’d look them over and continue to investigate.

“We’re not going to debate the case here,” said Flitner.

Later in evening, after emerging from a brief executive session, the board agreed to follow Bryant’s recommendation to terminate the employment of Whaley.

Abromats said in a follow up interview this week, “The real issue is, under OSHA, you cannot fire or retaliate on a person who reports a situation that could be hazardous to employees.” She said she plans to file suit under a section of federal code that would allow her to recoup all of her legal fees if she is victorious in court.

In other business:

  • In staff reports, Curriculum and Grants Coordinator Sara Schlattmann reported that the backpack program had received donations of $1,000 from the Elks and another $2,000 from Farm Credit Services.

Supt. Bryant said GES Principal Brett Suiter is considering changing some classrooms around for next school year because of the size of the fourth-grade class. With 47 students as of the night of the meeting, it’s one of the district’s largest.

  • Board members took no action on the concussion testing matter, but were encouraged to visit with their peers around the state and to do their own independent research so that the board can make a decision.
  • The board accepted the resignation of Angie Jonuska, a special education paraprofessional, effective Feb. 19.
  • The board approved alternate graduation requirements of Ashley Mayer, a senior who recently transferred in from a high school in Arizona. Had she stayed, she’d have been on track to graduate this spring with 22 credits. The trouble is, the Greybull district requires 24. The board agreed that if she keeps her grades up in her required classes, she can graduate, minus 1 ½ credits of vocational and ½ credit of elective.
  • The board agreed to offer contracts for the 2015-16 school year to its three building principals, Ty Flock, Scott McBride and Brett Suiter, as well as to its curriculum and grants coordinator, Sara Schlattmann, and special services director, Lee Clucas.
  • Board members tabled the awarding of the bid for planned renovations to the middle school, which is set to become the district’s new central office when the new middle school opens later this year.

Jim’s Building Service came in with the low bid, $272,522, for the work outlined in the specs.

But since those specs were drawn up, the state fire marshal has noted some concerns about the district’s plans. Specifically they wanted another exit to be developed for the board room and for changes to the vestibule on the north side of the building.

The board agreed to table it, knowing that they’d need to make a decision by Feb. 19.

On Tuesday, Feb. 17, the board set a special meeting for Wednesday night to award the bid.

  • The board approved requests from multiple certified staffers who wanted to donate their leave days to a classified employee whose husband has been ill.
  • With the new middle school nearing completion, the board approved the hiring of another full-time maintenance/custodial worker. Bryant said the district is authorized by the funding model to have 1.75 more custodial workers than it presently has. With the hire, that number would stand at .75. The board agreed to hire the person immediately — an expense of $12,000 to $14,000 through the end of the school year — and to include the position in next year’s school district budget. To pay for it this year, the district will use unspent dollars in transportation, insurance and benefits line items.
  • An easement request from the town pertaining to water lines adjacent to the elementary school was approved.