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Superintendent cleared ... with a catch

Charges of misconduct against Eagle Point School District Superintendent Cynda Rickert have been dropped by the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission.

"I am feeling excited, relieved and vindicated," Rickert said early Wednesday, referring to allegations she had made illegal staffing changes in the district related to school counselors.

But Rickert learned later in the day the oversight commission had "open investigations" against her.

"I am absolutely shocked," Rickert said. "We have been working closely for a month with the TSPC, and no mention was made to me or to my attorney. I am so shocked."

Melody Hanson, director of professional practices at TSPC, confirmed that complaints made by former school board members Jim Mannenbach and Mark Bateman had been dismissed.

But Hanson said there were "still open investigations remaining" against Rickert.

Hanson refused to detail the investigations or say who initiated them, citing state statutes.

"Our documents are not subject to public inspection," Hanson said, adding an investigator will bring information before the commission, which will determine whether or how to proceed.

Rickert's attorney, Nancy Hungerford, said the commission's willingness to make public the fact her client was being investigated, without informing Rickert, was "reprehensible."

"This smacks of being politically inspired," Hungerford said. "This is a shameful process being used to harass an administrator."

Bateman's complaint, which had to do with the district's contracts for busing services, was dismissed by the TSPC without a planned hearing, Hungerford said. The bigger issue was a complaint from former school board member Jim Mannenbach, who in 2011 filed a complaint stating Rickert replaced licensed counselors at Eagle Point High School with unlicensed staff — a claim Rickert said was untrue.

Oregon Administrative Rules state that districts must assign guidance counseling responsibilities to the appropriate personnel and "provide a comprehensive guidance and counseling program" at every grade level. Knowingly assigning an educator to duties they aren't licensed for is not allowed.

Rickert was slated to have a hearing on the allegations this week. But she received notice via Hungerford early Tuesday that the agency had dismissed the charges, Rickert said.

"I knew all along I had not done anything wrong," Rickert said, adding she was prepared to defend her decisions before the commission.

Rickert said staffing changes made at Eagle Point are in compliance with state regulations and are common practice in other districts.

"I am still not aware of what law, policy or rule I allegedly violated," Rickert said. "The Eagle Center has two full-time licensed counselors. That has never changed. That is a fact."

Rickert received a notice of her charge of "gross neglect of duty" in the mail on Dec. 24, 2012, from the TSPC. She appealed the decision and requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. The hearing was slated to take place Nov. 12-14.

Mannenbach first lodged a complaint with the district in spring 2010 over the counseling services, which the district determined weren't in violation of state standards.

Then in October 2010, Mannenbach appealed the decision to the Oregon Department of Education, which conducted its own investigation. It determined the district was in compliance, as well.

Mannenbach then lodged the TSPC complaint in January 2011, according to Allen Barber, the district's human resources director.

"The commission's decision removes unwarranted criticism of my actions in supporting a program that has dramatically increased services and success for thousands of students," Rickert said.

Mannenbach expressed disappointment with the TSPC's decision, and reiterated his concerns about current staffing.

"Since Cynda Rickert was not held accountable to use licensed counselors as required ... a precedent has been set for all other high schools in Oregon," Mannenbach said Wednesday in an email to the Mail Tribune.

"I believe this will have an extremely negative impact on counseling services for a very high percentage of Oregon high school students."

There is no requirement in Oregon to have licensed counselors at elementary and middle schools, Rickert said, and the TSPC's investigation focused only on the high school, which has employed two licensed counselors for more than 20 years.

Rickert said when she came to the district seven years ago, she asked staff members to identify how their work directly contributes to student success. The staffing changes, and the current policies, help keep the district fiscally sound and functionally efficient, she said.

Hungerford said the TSPC dropped Mannenbach's allegations because they had no case against Rickert. As for the new ones, "we have no idea what the complaints are or who made them," she said.

"And if (TSPC's) track record is anything to go on, these new allegations are going to be as groundless as the last ones," Hungerford said.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or sspecht@mailtribune.com.