PORTLAND, Ore. – Two weeks after the 2014 Oregon Teacher of the Year was fired from his teaching position, he has been reinstated – but the district intends to fire him again.
Brett Bigham, a special education teacher, was nominated as the 2014 Oregon Teacher of the Year by his employers at the Multnomah Education Service District (MESD) and won. He met President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and made numerous public appearances.
But the district said Bigham missed too much class time and prioritized outside activities over the kids' needs. He was placed on administrative leave in March and was told he would be let go April 3.
Bigham, who is gay, alleges class time was not the issue. He said the real reason he was fired was because he was discriminated against based on his sexual orientation and complained about the mistreatment.
A former MESD teacher, who wants to remain anonymous due to what she described as a culture of bullying and intimidation at the district, said the district's reasoning for firing Bigham doesn't hold up. Instead, she said Bigham was overworked at a job where classrooms were constantly understaffed and teaching aides often showed up late, if at all.
"The whole idea of Brett not showing up is ridiculous. I had an aide show up less than she was absent and [MESD] did not discipline her. I had an aide that was late 40 minutes a day at least once a week," she said. "The idea that Brett reached some kind of attendance policy is completely out of line compared to how they've dealt with other policy breaches."
Following Bigham's termination, he filed a complaint with the Bureau of Labor and Industries, and said the teachers union also filed a complaint about his dismissal.
On Tuesday, Bigham's lawyer received a letter informing him that Bigham would be reinstated, but immediately placed on leave with the intent of terminating him again.
"Today, we received notification that the April 10, 2015 termination of Mr. Bigham's employment with MESD has been reversed, effective immediately, and that he is being retroactively reinstated," said employment lawyer Matthew C. Ellis. "MESD has indicated that at the next Board of Directors meeting, which will not be before May 13, 2015, interim superintendent Jim Rose will recommend termination of Mr. Bigham's employment."
"It's been an interesting day," Bigham said with a laugh.
On Wednesday, MESD confirmed they had reinstated Bigham with the intent to fire him again.
"The actions taken by the MESD to reinstate Mr. Bigham, provide him with notice of the interim Superintendent's recommendation of termination and an opportunity for a hearing on the recommendation with the MESD Board at a date no sooner than May 13, is consistent with our commitment to providing respect and fair and legal process to employees," said Laura Conroy, spokeswoman for MESD.
Bigham believes the district didn't follow the rules when the district fired him the first time, and they're trying to cover their tracks.
"The first firing was illegal and didn't work, and they're going to try again," he said.
According to Bigham, the district changed the reasoning for letting him go. Instead of saying he missed more than 40 days of work as Teacher of the Year, which was why the district let him go the first time, MESD said he missed 21 days. Bigham said that number was well within his contractual rules.
Bigham said this time, the district also claimed he was insubordinate and failed to do his job.
"I think they realized the absenteeism wasn't going to hold water," he said.
Ellis said he is unsure why MESD is going through this process instead of just letting Bigham teach.
"Mr. Bigham should be in the classroom where he belongs," he said. "Why MESD would prefer to pay the 2014 Teacher of the Year to not work for several months is beyond us."