Teacher of the Year part of $306,612 settlement

2014 Oregon Teacher of the Year Brett Bigham has settled a lawsuit with the Multnomah Education Service District

The 2015 Oregon Education Association Teacher of the Year Brett Bigham, a transistion skills teacher at Multnomah Education Service District, was terminated after being put on administrative leave March 20, 2015 (Portland Tribune/Jaime Valdez)
The 2015 Oregon Education Association Teacher of the Year Brett Bigham, a transistion skills teacher at Multnomah Education Service District, was terminated after being put on administrative leave March 20, 2015 (Portland Tribune/Jaime Valdez)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — In its final acts, the outgoing board of Multnomah Education Service District unanimously authorized separation agreements Friday with Superintendent Barbara Jorgensen and 2014 Oregon Teacher of the Year Brett Bigham, totaling more than $306,612.

Jorgensen’s separation agreement included a payment of 12 months’ salary, or $149,262, plus a mandatory accrued vacation payout of $17,350. Bigham will receive $140,000 for a promise not to come back and to drop all his complaints of discrimination and harassment.

Portions of the payments will be made through the agency’s insurance company — $70,000 for Bigham and an undisclosed portion for Jorgensen.
Board Chairman Bernie Giusto said the board stuck with the terms of Jorgensen’s contract and paid to avoid a lawsuit.

“It would have been very costly litigation for us, if that would have been the case. And it would have been the case,” Giusto said. “(It takes) us to a place where a new superintendent could simply start again and not carry on litigation with a past superintendent on and on and on.”

Jorgensen was put on leave after a late February meeting of MESD’s eight customer school districts, who urged the board to oust her. The two-year superindendent had been officially “working offsite” while the terms of her separation were negotiated.

The board engaged in a four-month process to find a new superintendent, but ultimately voted June 16 to suspend its search for about a year to give the incoming board time to decide criteria. Former Chief Operating Officer Jim Rose will stay on as interim superintendent until then.

Bigham free to talk

Bigham’s agreement did not include a nondisclosure, or nondisparagement, clause, per his request.

“My whole situation stems from them feeling like they had the right to control something I said when I was not at work,” he said.
Bigham, who was in Peru on a National Education Association Global Fellowship during the announcement, said he wasn’t necessarily “happy” with the agreement.

“It’s weird sitting here at the base of Machu Picchu while that’s going on,” Bigham said. “It’s been a very frustrating time. I’m glad that I’m going to walk away, but I’m not happy about walking away from my classroom.”

Giusto said the board wanted a nondisparagement clause in the contract to avoid a public exchange over the issues that lead to Bigham’s dismissal.
“We’re trying to ask people not to throw rocks,” Giusto said. Bigham says the disagreement began with discrimination against his homosexuality and blossomed into retaliation for his public outcry over it. The district says Bigham took the Teacher of the Year opportunity to miss too many days of work.

“Frankly … the district could have handled the situation differently along the way,” Giusto admitted, but noted that they had agreed to much less than Bigham’s original demand. He said the district paid the amount it did after a risk-benefit analysis to avoid more-costly litigation. “Rather than continuing to distract staff and resources, the agency chose to bring closure to the situation.”

Bigham fired back that he deserved his payment. “My agreement with MESD said, you know, they take no liability, but I don’t believe you write a check for $140,000 if nothing’s wrong.”

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