Supt. Wilson Suing M.S.D. Steuben for Breach of Contract

by Josh Colletta

A lawsuit has been filed in Steuben Superior Court accusing the Metropolitan School District of Steuben County of attempting to improperly alter or terminate Superintendent Brent Wilson’s contract.

The Herald Republican says the suit was filed by Wilson’s attorneys on March 3rd, listing the district and seven board members as plaintiffs. They have until the 23rd to file a response, or the 26th if sending a response by certified mail. As of Wednesday night, no answers had been filed in the case, and there are no formal court dates set. However, the school board held an executive session Tuesday to discuss the matter.

Here’s the breakdown of Wilson’s complaint.

In 2006, the school board offered — and Wilson accepted — a contract setting his salary at $102,000 per year plus benefits. The board has renewed his contract multiple times, including some pay increases, in the time since.

Wilson claims that the other terms of the contract were meant to be permanent barring termination for cause, essentially keeping him in the position until he retires. If he were terminated without cause, Wilson says the contract expressly mandates that the board give him severance pay.

In the 2012 contract renewal, the board added a rollover provision that would extend Wilson’s deal annually for a period of five years. The extension could only be terminated if the school board’s annual evaluation of Wilson found his performance unfavorable, at which time the board president would be required to present a written notice to the superintendent, informing him that the contract will no longer automatically roll over. The evaluations are required to be completed by June 30th. The notice would have to be delivered to Wilson by July 1st.

But in August of 2016, school board member Brad Gardner made a motion to end the rollovers, which three board members ultimately voted to approve. One member voted against the motion, and one board member was absent. As a result, Wilson’s contract will be up for review and extension at the end of June 2021.

The lone “no” vote came from former school board president Kevin Beard. A letter that he wrote to Wilson in 2016 reveals that the board’s legal counsel was split in their interpretation of the contract language. Beard writes, “some [said] yes the board can vote to change it, others saying both parties must agree to the change,” and that “this section of the contract was not clear if the rollover portion was tied to the yearly review.”

Wilson, however, believes the change was an obvious violation. He accuses the defendants of attempting to either fire him without cause and evade their obligation to pay him severance… or force him to accept substantially reduced compensation in a new deal. He’s asking the court to determine that both Gardner’s motion and the vote that passed it are invalid, improper, and in clear breach of the contract. He also wants the court to rule on the validity of his contract overall, and award monetary damages and attorney fees.

The complaint notes that Gardner had expressed his distaste of the contract when the board member was first elected in 2015, and accuses Gardner of making public statements describing the superintendent as being “overpaid.”

It also alleges that school board members have been conducting group discussions of business matters without public access — a clear violation of Indiana’s Open Door Law. Exhibits to support the claim include a letter from Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt written to Assistant Superintendent Ann Rice in late 2017.

Britt ends the letter by recommending that the district “tighten-up its practices when it comes to using emails and ensure discussions of substantive issues are held in front of the public.” Britt also wrote that the board violated the spirit of the law.