KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — A former secretary for Kalamazoo Public Schools’ superintendent has sued the district, alleging that school board members were inappropriately using funds for their own purposes and violating the Open Meetings Act.
Tabatha Coleman started working as an executive administrative assistant to the KPS Superintendent and recording secretary for KPS board of education meetings in August 2021. A release from her lawyers says that she noticed that the KPS Board was using public money to expense unnecessary travel and meals during closed sessions. She alleged the board wasn’t transparent about board member reimbursement.
“That should not be interpreted to mean that individuals went out and purposely did this. It’s entirely possible that those individuals were not aware of the requirements of the law,” Eric DelaPorte, the attorney representing Coleman, said.
Coleman also said that the board was not abiding by Michigan’s Open Meetings Act because it held meetings that weren’t scheduled far enough in advance, with some having only 18 hours of notice. She said they were also only publicized in two buildings and nothing was posted on the internet to inform the public.
In December, Coleman wrote a letter to the KPS Board and its leaders outlining her claims. She said $248,524 had been unlawfully used by the board “with no oversight or accountability since 2007,” read the lawsuit. She also accused former KPS Board of Education President Patti Sholler-Barber of requesting the board’s meetings not be publicized and altering the minutes.
After sending the letter, Coleman said, she was demoted from administrative assistant to a lower-ranked position in February. She was also no longer allowed to do her job of taking down minutes. Coleman alleged that before she sent the letter, she received no negative work feedback or complaints and was performing her work “in an exemplary manner,” according to the lawsuit.
“We have individuals who will say that the transfer was purely … to get rid of her so she was no longer there to overhear when they frankly violated the law,” DelaPorte said.
In a statement, Coleman expressed her concern that the board was using money that belonged to the community.
“Not everyone in this community has the same resources or privileges; we have many families who work hard every day and have little to show for it. These families are counting on their kids getting a quality education to break a cycle and give them hope for a better future,” she wrote.
In a Thursday statement, Coleman’s attorney said the district also terminated the previous superintendent, business manager, foundation manager and others, including Coleman, in an attempt to “bury what they’ve done.”
Superintendent Rita Raichoudhuri resigned in December, weeks before Coleman sent her letter. At the time, the district said her resignation was a “mutual decision” and that she was leaving KPS “in good standing.”
Though the vote to accept her resignation was unanimous, local educational leaders seemed to be blindsided.
“We were stunned, absolutely stunned. Speechless,” said Kalamazoo Education Association president Heather Reid. “It sounds like there’s a lot of internal politics. Honestly, I think it’s more between the board and Dr. Raichoudhuri.”
“I’m filing this lawsuit on behalf of myself and so many people who have been abused by this board and administration,” Coleman wrote in a statement. “I’m a person of deep faith, which compels me to stand up when I see people doing wrong. And I am standing up for the thousands of students whose futures depend on KPS delivering its best and focusing on doing what’s best children, not doing what’s best for the grownups running the district.”
DelaPorte said Coleman is asking for the board to be transparent and use its funding on students.
“A quarter million dollars would’ve bought a lot of textbooks,” he said.
KPS: ‘INVESTIGATION FOUND NO MERIT’
“The district hired legal counsel to investigate Tabatha Coleman’s complaint. The investigation found no merit to her complaint. She is a current employee and received a pay increase,” Interim Superintendent Cindy Green said in a statement.
In a summary of the investigation, the legal counsel said her allegations were unsubstantiated.
“The Board’s policies and practices regarding Board member compensation, Board member travel reimbursement, meals during meetings, public notice, and meeting minutes are and have been consistent with legal requirements. In addition, your allegation that you have been subjected to ‘actions bordering on retaliation’ for reporting any alleged legal violations is unsubstantiated,” the legal counsel wrote.
It said board members had been correctly compensated for meetings and events they attended, and that the board’s policy for travel expenses is compliant with legal requirements. It said record of compensation and reimbursements for board members has been made public.
The investigation summary says the board was abiding by Michigan’s Open Meetings Act, because regular meetings are scheduled at the start of the fiscal year and then the schedule is posted online. Board advance meetings were posted at least 18 hours in advance because the dates for those meetings can change. The school’s legal counsel said those are considered special meetings, which only need public notice at least 18 hours in advance.
It also said meeting minutes weren’t falsified, as Coleman said, but corrected.
The investigation said that purchasing meals for board members during a meeting is acceptable, because the meeting happened over dinner time at and “these meetings are clearly held for a public purpose—to conduct Board business.”
The summary denied Coleman’s claim of retaliation, saying her job duties were not transferred, except when a secretary was asked to help post a special meeting and get information on a search for a new superintendent, because the secretary had experience helping in a superintendent search.
Coleman’s attorney says he doesn’t believe that investigation was effective.
“If they’re relying on the fact that they were cleared by their handpicked attorney, it carries no weight,” DelaPorte said.
— News 8’s Demetrios Sanders contributed to this report.