Iowa City Community School District Board Members narrowly voted against reinstating Stephanie Van Housen, former homeless liaison for the district, who was fired earlier this year. Discussion at the open meeting Tuesday night, which was packed with around 80 members of the public, centered around the reasons for Van Housen’s termination, and whether those reasons were within legal bounds and if this move represented the best interests of the district.
In the 4-3 decision, board members LaTasha DeLoach, Brian Kirschling, Chris Lynch and Paul Roesler voted to uphold the firing, while Chris Liebig, Phil Hemingway and Lori Roetlin voted to reinstate Van Housen.
Administrators, board members and Van Housen shared differing views regarding the primary factors that led to the firing.
Van Housen pointed to examples where she believed the district wasn’t following federal and state law. She argued that a key reason for her firing was backlash for going outside the chain of command when she disagreed with her supervisors’ decisions, which she said was a violation of her rights.
Van Housen’s attorney said that the nature of the homeless liaison’s role inherently leads to situations where the liaison’s goals and the administration’s goals are at odds. He said that the homeless students that Van Housen was tasked with advocating for have a higher incidence of behavior disorders, require more district resources and have statistically lower test scores and attendance records which affects schools’ perceived performance.
Administrators pointed to a controversial tour after school hours of a special education classroom that raised issues with the district’s use of time-out rooms, as well as tensions between Van Housen and other employees that created a bad working environment.
“[Van Housen’s] communication style became an impediment to doing her job,” said Joan Vanden Berg the Youth and Family Development Coordinator during the meeting.
Student and family advocates in the district sent Vanden Berg a letter in December citing issues with Van Housen, including disrespectful treatment of the advocates and not being available during emergencies outside of work hours.
The board expressed differing views about whether or not Van Housen’s actions were covered under whistle blower protections.
“Did this termination violate one of our policies? You don’t have to be a perfect employee to be protected by these policies. Employees have a right to be protected when they speak out,” Liebig said.
Liebig questioned whether Van Housen would have been fired if she had not spoken out criticizing the administration, and if that criticism was protected speech, were there sufficient other reasons for her firing.
Right before the vote, Roetlin said she had concerns about potential costs if Van Housen was not reinstated and pursued further legal action. Roetlin said court costs would come out of the district’s general fund.