He 'blew whistle,' was placed on leave, Romulus superintendent says in suit

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

The superintendent of the Romulus Community Schools filed a harassment and racial discrimination lawsuit against the district and school board, saying he was placed on indefinite leave and replaced with a less qualified person.

Romulus Community Schools superintendent Benjamin Edmondson

Benjamin Edmondson, who is Black, filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Michigan, alleging a "sustained campaign of harassment" against him since he joined the Romulus Community School District as the superintendent in August 2020. He is claiming violations of the Michigan Whistleblower Protection Act and the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

Edmondson said he was placed on administrative leave without notice "or any opportunity to be heard just days after he 'blew the whistle' and reported his concerns about a potential violation of the Michigan Open Meetings Act."

The district, Edmondson's suit alleges, has been plagued with problems when he began his tenure. "Almost immediately upon the beginning of Dr. Edmondson’s employment, several members of the Romulus Community School District Board of Education, primarily the individually named defendants, began to create problems for Dr. Edmondson ..."

The lawsuit names board president Debi Pyles, Judy Kennard, Susan Evitts and Nichole German as defendants.

The board members began "pushing back on decisions within his discretion as superintendent, interfering with his ability to perform his job and improve the school district, and causing multiple District administrators and employees to quit," according to the lawsuit.

Edmondson of Dundee described his leave "illegitimate" and said his replacement, who is White, is paid a higher salary with fewer qualifications. Edmondson has a master's and doctorate, according to the suit.

As a result of the school board's move, he has "suffered significant reputational harm within the close-knit community of Michigan educators," the suit said.

The lawsuit said on Aug. 23, the board "voted to place a formal letter of reprimand into Dr. Edmondson’s file after accusing him of a litany of allegations, including that he failed to provide a key fob to Dixon’s employees or perform background checks on them; that he 'engaged in defiant behavior' towards the Board president, Ms. Pyles; and that he improperly sent emails regarding pay raises for custodians."

In a statement to The Detroit News, Pyles said Edmonson was placed on a paid leave of absence "to enable an independent investigation into the serious dysfunctional operation of the district’s business office, which problems were not being addressed by the superintendent."

The board, during Edmondson's six-week absence for heart surgery, he said, voted to hire Dixon Public Consulting to investigate the district's finances.

"I have not reviewed the lawsuit filed by Superintendent Edmonson but can state that the reasons that (the) superintendent was placed on a paid leave of absence were for the reasons stated" in her explanation, she said.

In another assertion in the lawsuit, Edmondson said on Sept. 20, he reported a concern about a potential violation of the Michigan Open Meetings Act to the board via email, citing a section of the act that requires "all minutes of any meetings be available for inspection 8 business days after the meeting and further, approved minutes within 5 business days after the meeting at which the minutes are approved by the public body."

He said he sought copies of the minutes of board meetings and committee meetings from June 15 to Aug. 23 and Sept. 13, saying the board secretary had not provided them since July 28. "Your compliance will allow me to ensure I am following all of the formal Board Motions, as expected," the lawsuit said. "Not having access to all of those approved motions in a timely manner has made it difficult to understand and comply with recent mandates and directives."

Edmondson also forwarded his concerns about an Open Meetings Act violation to attorney Robert Schindler, the filing said.

"Though this may not appear to be whistle blowing, I am actually coming to your firm to voice my complaint and concern," he said. "I am done with this nonsense and legally we are violating the law."

The four board members voted to place Edmondson on administrative leave Sept. 27, the suit said, citing findings by Dixon involving operations of the district's Finance Department. The issues, the lawsuit alleges, "were not directly related to Dr. Edmondson's role as Superintendent."

Pyles said in an email late Sunday that the superintendent was on paid leave "to enable an independent investigation into the serious dysfunctional operation of the District’s Business Office, which problems were not being addressed by the Superintendent."  

"I have not reviewed the lawsuit filed by Superintendent Edmonson but can state that the reasons that Superintendent was placed on a paid leave of absence were for the reasons stated above," Pyles said.

She referred to a statement on the school's website in which she listed an auditor's finding of "14 serious Business/Financial Office problems" last year of which "12 of those 14 problems remain unresolved going into this year's audit."

Her statement also said Edmonson "did not provide any meaningful or concrete plan" to address the problems in the district's business and financial operations and that he had no plan to fill the interim finance director position.

The lawsuit said that the interim finance director, the executive director of K-12 instruction, the director of human resources and the payroll supervisor all quit due to problems with the four board members.

He is seeking compensatory and exemplary damages; attorney fees, costs and interest; and "other relief as this Court deems just and proper."