Ortiz filed labor complaint to return to Central principal post

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File comes from Freedom of Information Act request

By Kelly Cantrall

A U.S. Department of Labor investigator told Hardin County Schools that Ron Ortiz was entitled to return to his previous job after spending a year on active military duty.

Prompted by a complaint filed Jan. 5 by Ortiz, the Department of Labor determined that being assigned as principal of the Brown Street Alternative Education Center at Vine Grove was not a satisfactory option to returning as principal of Central Hardin High School. The records, obtained by The News-Enterprise through a Freedom of Information Act request, show that the school system offered Ortiz a choice of jobs after an investigative teleconference.

The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act requires that returning service members be re-employed “in the job that they would have attained had they not been absent for military service” and receive the same “seniority, status and pay.”

A member of the U.S. Army Reserves for 27 years, Ortiz was recalled to active status as a lieutenant colonel and served one year at Fort Knox. Shortly after beginning work at Brown Street in January, Ortiz filed a complaint with the department’s Veterans Employment and Training Service.

According to his complaint, he was told in December that he would be moved to Brown Street because for him to return to Central Hardin in the middle of the school year would be disruptive. Ortiz stated in the complaint that he didn’t feel these were equal positions, because the Brown Street principal position oversees a smaller staff, student body and budget. The position also had additional job functions not required of his position at Central Hardin.

Ortiz declined to comment on the complaint he filed or any documents released by the Department of Labor.

In a letter sent to David Wilson, an attorney for Hardin County Schools, investigator Robert Kuenzli said Ortiz was entitled to the position at Central or a position with “like pay, seniority and status,” which included location, the number of staff and promotion opportunities.

Kuenzli stated in the letter that the “like position” was intended in case the original position was no longer available and a replacement needed to be found, which was not relevant in this instance. An assistant principal was assigned to fill Central’s principal’s office on an interim basis.

In response to the complaint, a letter Wilson sent Jan. 25 to Kuenzli said the district was not holding Ortiz’s military service against him. As proof, he noted that the district originally hired Ortiz when he was on military leave.
Wilson’s letter argued that the move to Brown Street wasn’t a step down and said the transfer would have been initiated in any case because of performance issues.

Superintendent Nannette Johnston said in an email to Wilson that the Brown Street position needed to be restructured because more accountability for decreasing dropouts and increasing credit recovery options was being required by the Kentucky Department of Education. With Joe Welch retiring at mid-year from Brown Street, Johnston said in the message that it was a good opportunity and she thought Ortiz would be a good candidate for the job.

Documents in the Department of Labor file cite deficiencies and suggestions for school leadership made when Central Hardin underwent a scholastic audit. Another document from a state Department of Education observer raises issues about a lack of openness to staff opinions by Ortiz and concerns whether the school’s administration was on board with changes being made.

Johnston said Friday that she couldn’t comment on specifics of a personnel issue.

In a conference call a few days later, Department of Labor investigators told Wilson that the new position was unlike the one at Central. At that time, HCS offered Ortiz the job at Central if he agreed to wait until the end of the school year.
He made the decision to return to Central Hardin and the staff was informed March 16.

The announcement that Ortiz was returning to Central was presented by Hardin County Schools officials as a choice that Ortiz had open to him, with no mention of a federal employment complaint.

Johnston said Ortiz is committed to following the course set at Central while he was gone.

“We all want the same thing and that’s success for our students,” she said.

Kelly Cantrall can be reached at (270) 505-1747 or kcantrall@thenewsenterprise.com.