The Fountain Hills Unified School District Governing Board held a special meeting on Dec. 17, where members voted to dismiss Fountain Hills Middle School teacher Erin Willis.
According to a report presented during the meeting, the main issue and the reason for Willis’ dismissal was the three days in October that Willis was a “no call, no show” for her teaching position at Fountain Hills Middle School. Willis, who has at-risk family members in her household, had been on a variety of leave beforehand and had put in a request for additional leave.
While most FHUSD personnel matters are handled in executive session, Willis requested that a hearing concerning her possible termination be held in public.
Willis contends that she was under the impression that she was being fired and did not think that she would have to report to work for the days in question. Willis alleges that the school district is retaliating against her for being critical of the district’s reopening plan concerning COVID-19.
“You contend that there is basis for my termination and you give the hearing officer’s findings and conclusion, albeit much of it is out of context to support your decision,” Willis said during the meeting. “…I was given no reason, no cause, no evidence even upon my request for such. Your intention then had been to get rid of me, to silence me for retaliation and in direct response to my repeated attempts to hold you accountable for your actions.”
Willis also holds that she was told by Superintendent Glass in June that there would be options to teach safely from home.
“It wasn’t until late July that you communicated you were revoking such accommodations without justification,” she said. “You have also made repeated threats to staff, forbidding us from working, collaborating and communicating with one another.”
The district’s attorney, Donald Johnson, responded to these allegation saying that Willis being critical of the district, whether that is a legally protected action or not, does not insulate her from the consequences of her other actions, namely not calling in for the additional days she was absent.
“As noted in the written papers, the question for the board today in this proceeding is very simple and very focused,” Johnson stated during the meeting. “The only question for consideration is whether good and just cause existed to dismiss Mrs. Willis. As the hearing officer confirmed, the events in this case do rise to good and just cause…the critical point, as the hearing officer recognized, was there came a time when [Willis’] entitlement to those leave of absences ended.
“There was dialogue between Mrs. Willis and the administration about what would happen after the paid leave ended. There certainly was a request from Mrs. Willis for an additional leave of absence, unpaid; but, as the board will recall, you had not acted on the request. Meanwhile, Mrs. Willis was instructed in writing to report to work on Oct. 19. She did not do so, nor did she call in.”
The board voted unanimously to dismiss Willis with Board President Jill Reed stating the situation could have been remedied if Willis had called in during the days she did not show up to work.
Willis, however, said she plans to fight the decision.
“This is my school, they are my students,” Willis said. “I love them fiercely and I will not walk out on them. I will not resign; I have done nothing wrong. You can fire me, [but] it is not over. I am going to keep fighting for myself and my students.”
Concerning this process, Willis has also filed an open meeting law complaint with the Attorney General’s Office against FHUSD, alleging that the Nov. 25 hearing where she originally appealed her termination was closed to the public because the district did not allow viewers to join the meeting virtually. Superintendent Kelly Glass has stated that the hearing was open to the public to attend in person, but not virtually. As of this writing, there is no update on this complaint.