Mary Finlayson served as chief investigator but was fired in May 2013 because, according to her lawyer, she blew the whistle on “deeply troubling and likely illegal conduct.”
Finlayson said Michael Shanahan, the school district’s human resources director, shut down an active investigation into allegations that a teacher was being pulled out of class in 2011 to work on doctoral dissertations for her school principal and also for assistant superintendent Angela Huff.
Huff obtained her doctorate degree and was promoted to Hinojosa’s chief of staff in 2012.
Finlayson also objected to Shanahan’s veto of a hiring panel’s recommendation to hire a white man who was deemed to be the most qualified for an open investigator position. Shanahan allegedly ordered her to find a black woman for the job instead.
“I believe I was terminated in retaliation for complaining about illegal, discriminatory and unethical practices by Dr. Michael Shanahan,” Finlayson wrote in an Aug. 19, 2013, letter to Hinojosa obtained by MDJ through an open records request. “I had done nothing wrong.”
‘Whistle-blower’ says she was victim of cover-up
Finlayson, a former Cobb Police investigator, joined the school district’s investigation team in January 2006 and eventually was promoted to lead investigator for the district. But her position was terminated on May 9, 2013.
Shanahan cited budget constraints as the reason for terminating Finlayson.
When she was fired, Finlayson said she had 27 minutes to leave the central-office building in which she worked for more than seven years, and was escorted out the door by staff without being able to say goodbye to her co-workers.
“Our office had never treated an employee with such disrespect and cruelty,” Finlayson wrote to Hinojosa in the Aug. 19 letter.
In that same letter, Finlayson accuses Shanahan of covering up inappropriate hiring practices carried out under his supervision.
In February 2012, the district advertised an open position for an investigator and Finlayson said more than 100 applications were submitted.
After Finlayson was involved with interviewing “a variety” of candidates, she said a panel of five professionals unanimously recommended that Shanahan hire Chris Dowd, who is white.
“Dr. Shanahan then told me that he wanted me to find a black female to interview for that position. He stated he wanted diversity in the office. I told him that we are not allowed to ask for an applicant’s race on our application and that we were not supposed to select a candidate using their race as a selection criteria.”
But Shanahan, she said, told her he was not going to approve the recommended hire.
“The following business day, he called me to his office and gave me the name of what he said was a black female that had applied for the position and directed me to bring her in for an interview,” Finlayson wrote.
She believed Shanahan had wrongfully collected information on the applicant’s race from Equal Employment Opportunity questionnaires included in the applications.
“It is illegal under federal law for a covered employer to discriminate against an employee (or applicant) in the hiring processes,” said Kelly Beard, an Atlanta attorney hired by Finlayson. “In short, if the county were to disregard its standard hiring processes in order to hire or promote a lesser qualified white candidate to the detriment of a better-qualified black candidate, that would be illegal under Title VII and 42 USC sec. 1981. The same rule applies in the reverse.”
The black female candidate’s references did not come through, but Finlayson said in the letter she was told by Shanahan to schedule an interview with the applicant.
Finlayson protested to Shanahan, and then went to his boss, Alice Stouder, to report her concerns.
“She stated she would not allow that to happen and would take care of it,” Finlayson wrote. “Shanahan was angry with me for reporting this activity to his boss, and his decision to terminate my employment without cause was due to my complaint.”
Finlayson said she was discouraged by Shanahan from reporting any improper hiring practices to the Georgia Professional Standards Commission.
John Adams, with Educators First, an organization representing teachers, said he was deeply troubled by Finlayson’s letter. Adams served as chief investigator for Cobb Schools before Finlayson.
“I never saw this practice and I would not have allowed it if I had been there as well. If her allegations are true, this is extremely troubling from a human resources perspective,” Adams said. “What she has alleged would be a violation of board policy of EEO and would likely be a violation of federal law as well.”
Teacher pulled out of class to help principal
One month later, in March 2012, Finlayson started reviewing email exchanges between language-arts teacher Katrina Cordell at Lindley Middle School and the school’s principal, Sandra Ervin. The district opened an investigation and found that not only Ervin but her boss, then area assistant superintendent Angela Huff, had used Cordell to help with their dissertations.
One month later, in April 2012, Hinojosa asked the school board to promote Huff from an assistant superintendent to his chief of staff.
Hinojosa did not respond to questions Tuesday about when he learned of the investigation. He announced at Monday night’s school board meeting his intentions to retire, a month after asking the school board to rehire his central-office staff, including Shanahan and Huff.
School district spokesman Jay Dillon said “some of the accusations in Finlayson’s letter are not accurate.”
Dillon said Cordell did not do any of the actual writing of the dissertations. Rather, the work focused on helping produce PowerPoint presentations involved in defending the dissertations before faculty at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Emails obtained by the MDJ indicate the teacher had been taking time out of the classroom to work on Huff’s dissertation and accompanying PowerPoint presentation.
The district paid substitute teachers to fill in while the two educators worked on the dissertation at Lindley Middle School, according to Finlayson.
Finlayson approached Shanahan, the HR director, with her concerns.
“I went to Dr. Shanahan and informed him of what I had found and advised we would need to conduct further interviews and review more computer records to complete that investigation,” Finlayson wrote in her Aug. 19 letter to Hinojosa.
“The following week he told me that I was not to pursue the matter any further, that no investigation would be conducted. …He did not pursue this investigation and covered it up after directing me not to pursue the matter any further.”
The MDJ reported in August 2012 that the school board had accepted a sudden resignation from Ervin.
“This teacher should have been in a classroom teaching,” Finlayson wrote, referring to Cordell.
Huff received a doctorate of philosophy in 2011 from the University of Southern Mississippi’s Department of Educational Leadership, according to the university’s website.
Chief of Staff Huff responds to investigator
A document stamped “response from Dr. Huff” was delivered to the MDJ in a sealed box of open records regarding Finlayson’s investigation.
In the response to Finlayson’s inquiries, Huff admitted her daytime emails with Cordell were inappropriate.
“I realize that my email exchanges should not have occurred during the school day,” Huff said in her written response.
Huff wrote that Cordell offered to help her with the PowerPoint presentation for her degree.
“I didn’t ask her,” Huff told the investigators.
In a March 19, 2011, email to Cordell, Huff writes, “Katrina, in speaking with Sandra last week, we discussed the possibility of Wednesday, March 23rd as being a day I could come to Lindley and discuss my power point with you. Is that day fine with you and is the time of 8:30 fine with you?” Huff asks, ending the email with her signature: “Angela Huff, Area 6 Assistant Superintendent, Cobb County School District.”
In an April 1, 2011, email to Cordell at 3:43 p.m., Huff writes: “Katrina, I’ve placed each of the lists from my proposal in a Word document. I think Dr. Greer wanted me to put them in table format and organize them by: Principal no control, Behaviors principals can control, Evaluating the principal and outcomes. She wanted a table with identifiers at the top with researchers to the left, etc. Thanks for agreeing to help me with this part and create the table. Have a great Spring Break next week.”
Cordell responded in an April 12, 2011, email at 3:07 p.m.: “Mrs. Huff … this was difficult … but anything for you! You are great and thank you for allowing me to help.”
Still waiting on Hinojosa
Finlayson said she never received a response to her Aug. 19 letter to Hinojosa. He did, however, email her letter to his senior staff the evening he received it with the comment, “Please read.”
Finlayson has retained a lawyer, but has not filed a lawsuit against the school district. She has filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and sent a letter to the Board of Education from her attorney.
Lindley Middle School’s website lists Cordell as a teacher in the school’s gifted students program specializing in English language arts.