Oak Ridge principal says false sex claim led to dismissal

Paul Burke
Paul Burke

The Oak Ridge High School principal ousted this week says his disciplinary case began with a false sexual harassment allegation at the El Dorado Hills campus, according to a claim he filed with the district.

Paul Burke was placed on leave Nov. 2 for what the El Dorado Union High School District has described for months as a confidential personnel matter. On Monday,district trustees voted unanimously to remove Burke as principal. He remains on paid administrative leave until June 30.

Until now, Burke and district officials remained silent on the specifics that led to his removal last year.

Rocklin-based attorney Jacob D. Flesher filed on Burke’s behalf a 16-page claim last week. It named as defendants the school district, Superintendent Stephen Wehr, an administrative assistant, an assistant superintendent and an assistant principal.

The claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, said administrative assistant Courtney McGinty Soto “falsely, with malice and in bad faith” reported to Oak Ridge High School Assistant Principal Lindsey Kovach on Oct. 20 that Burke had sexually harassed a teacher at the school. A Soto telephone extension at the school describes her as administrative assistant to Burke.

Wehr said Wednesday the issue remains a “confidential personnel matter.”

“If indeed Mr. Burke’s attorney decides to file a lawsuit, then we will certainly address all of those issues in court, if that is necessary,” Wehr said. “We continue to recognize that this is a very challenging circumstance.”

Burke’s claim laid out this scenario:

Kovach “interrogated” the teacher, who vehemently denied anything had occurred. At one point, Kovach “falsely” told the teacher that multiple staff members had reported the harassment. When the teacher persisted that nothing had occurred, Kovach named Burke as the reported harasser.

After the first interrogation, the teacher alerted Burke and he immediately tried to contact Wehr, the claim said.

“I don’t want to overstate this situation as a concern, but it’s hard not to,” Burke said in an email to Wehr and Assistant Superintendent Tony DeVille that was cited in the claim. “This entire incident is incredibly concerning and doesn’t add up. I can’t help but wonder what damage this incident has or will have upon my reputation, character, integrity and career.”

DeVille subsequently interviewed the teacher, who again denied being sexually harassed, according to the claim. DeVille then met with Soto and her labor representative and said that the allegations were unsubstantiated by the purported victim.

Burke’s claim said he was placed on administrative leave on the basis of further allegations made by Soto.

Kovach and Soto could not be reached Tuesday for comment. DeVille was limited in his response.

“This is an ongoing situation and it deals with personnel issues and it is, therefore, confidential,” DeVille said. “So I really can’t speak any more about this at this point.”

A report from a district administrator said Burke used profanity on campus, got angry in meetings and that staff observed his hands shook at such times. Burke says that he has benign tremor syndrome, a neurological condition, and that the district never asked him about why his hands shook.

El Dorado Parents 4 District Change, which is supporting Burke, this week shared a draft of the principal’s federal lawsuit that mirrors the claim already filed with the district. The suit seeks reinstatement for Burke and damages.

Attorney Flesher verified the authenticity of the draft lawsuit and said he had planned to file it this week, “but we are waiting for the district to rule on the claim form that we had previously filed with them.”

The draft suit cites as causes of action: retaliation stemming from the false harassment accusation; a violation of provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990; defamation; and violation of the state’s open meeting law because the district improperly informed the public of the trustee meeting in which Burke was terminated.

Editor’s note (March 3): This story has been corrected. A previous version said Paul Burke had reviewed a report issued by an outside consultant hired by the district. Burke has not seen that report.