MMSD refuses to reinstate fired principal after ‘inappropriate’ comments on voicemail, records show

MADISON, Wis. — The Madison Metropolitan School District is refusing to reinstate former Sennett Middle School Principal Dr. Jeffrey Copeland, who was fired on September 26 after an internal investigation.

According to records obtained by News 3 Now and first reported on by the Cap Times last week, Copeland’s termination came after he confirmed it was his voice on a recording that the school district said showed bias against a prospective employee from outside the country. At the time, the Black principal had been serving in the role for only a matter of weeks.

“Your actions were unacceptable and should not be tolerated,” the notice of termination signed by Chief of Secondary Schools Angie Hicks, who is also Black, read. “Your behavior goes against the MMSD vision of creating an anti-racist school culture and curriculum.”

Dr. Copeland filed a grievance against the school district in October, asking to be reinstated with backpay or an “amicable” separation that included a year’s salary of severance pay ($127,857) with a letter of reference and a recoup of attorney costs.

“Dr. Copeland was terminated based on false, misleading, and potentially defamatory statements and conclusions of fact,” a letter from his attorney James Dickinson said. Records show the district denied the grievance on October 24, but additional reviews may be forthcoming.

Dickinson was not immediately available for comment. A district spokesperson said Wednesday the case was still following the grievance process outlined in their employee handbook but would not comment further.

Audio recording includes off-color comments about job applicant

On September 6, recordings provided by the school district show Dr. Copeland leaving a voicemail with a potential job candidate. News 3 Now requested records related to Dr. Copeland’s termination on September 28; procedural delays led to the records being sent this Wednesday.

What Dr. Copeland didn’t know at the time was the voicemail continued, recording what was meant to be a private conversation with a colleague about the candidate; Copeland later told the district it was indeed his voice on the recording.

Copeland and another unidentified colleague were discussing the applicant’s credentials for the position; the applicant had applied to be a science teacher which at the time was not available. The colleague pointed out that he had a degree from the Dominican Republic and had experience in healthcare, and could potentially be a special education teacher if they got him an emergency license.

“That’s amazing,” Copeland is heard saying on an enhanced version of the audio recording, left on the applicant’s voicemail. “They’re just giving people damn jobs.”

Copeland continued, “I don’t like it…He could barely communicate with me.”

In a letter dated September 13, the district notified Dr. Copeland that he was being placed on nondisciplinary paid administrative leave, pending an investigation of alleged inappropriate behavior and violation of “district expectations” in the workplace.

On September 26, after a meeting with Dr. Copeland on September 14, Copeland was terminated.

“You had a conversation with a colleague during which you made inappropriate remarks about a candidate that were extremely harmful and do not reflect the values that the district believes its leaders should possess,” the termination letter read. “You made comments about the person not being from this country as well as your disapproval of his credentials.”

Dr. Copeland’s grievance letter disputes the district’s conclusions

In a letter dated October 12, Dr. Copeland, through attorney James Dickinson, filed a grievance notice with the district. In it, he argued that the district did not reference a policy outlining the values referenced in the termination letter that he had violated.

He also said that Dr. Copeland did not make comments about the person being from another country and that Dr. Copeland’s comment about giving people “damn jobs” was a general statement that reflected his opinion on how the hiring process was being conducted.

“Communication is a key aspect of teaching; Dr. Copeland has a responsibility to his students to hire staff that can communicate and teach effectively,” the grievance stated. The letter went on to dispute MMSD’s characterization of his behavior when they wrote about their vision of creating an anti-racist school culture.

“No reference to race was made by Dr. Copeland therefore this allegation is spurious and not grounds for termination,” the attorney argued.

Hicks rejects Copeland’s grievance but additional reviews may be forthcoming

In response, Hicks rejected the grievance saying that his statements about a “doctor in this country” combined with the phrase that he could “barely communicate with me” evidenced a “clear bias” toward him based on national origin, as the candidate’s name, accent and degree were from the Dominican Republic.

Of his statements about communication being a key to education, Hicks responded that “Those concerns, in a vacuum, could be considered valid concerns. However, the questions surrounding the candidate’s credentials are tainted by your statement about whether the candidate is a doctor in this country.”

Copeland could choose to escalate his grievance further in accordance with the MMSD Employee Handbook. Step one of the district’s grievance processing procedure requires Copeland to file first with his supervisors, but barring a resolution, Copeland could continue to take additional steps.

Step two would require a review by the executive director of human resources; step three would allow Copeland to appeal to an impartial hearing officer, and the fourth and final step would take Copeland’s grievance to the school board for review.

Sennett staff come to Dr. Copeland’s defense two days after he was fired

In the immediate aftermath of Dr. Copeland’s suspension and consequent firing, the former Sennett Middle School principal was not without supporters.

At a school board meeting, staff and faculty came to his defense at a school board meeting. They praised Copeland’s performance as principal and demanded he be reinstated.

“It’s incredible to have a boss that has your back and you know it down to your gut,” said language arts teacher Tom Blau. “I can show up, I can do what’s right. I know I’m an awesome teacher and I know this man has my back and he was taken.”

In a message to News 3 Now on Thursday Blau said he maintains his support for Copeland and that staff plan to attend another school board meeting on Monday. He also said Copeland will meet with the board on the 29th.

In an email to Sennett families in late September, district officials said Dr. Susan Abplanalp and Randi Kubek–both returning from retirement–will serve as co-interim principals for the rest of the school year.