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District says Bigham's ego got in the way; teacher says he is being bullied because he filed a complaint of sexual discrimination

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The 2015 Oregon Education Association Teacher of the Year Brett Bigham says he was fired in retailiation for his filing a complaint of descrimination based on his sexuality. The district says Bigham refused to work with them and was not engaged in his classroom.

Oregon’s two-time Teacher of the Year has been fired.

Brett Bigham, a life skills teacher for 18-to-21-year-olds with developmental disabilities, had been placed on administrative leave Friday, March 20. He was terminated last Friday, April 3.

The move comes amid a long history of turmoil at the Multnomah Education Service District, including that which led to the recent ouster of Superintendent Barbara Jorgensen.

Laura Conroy, a spokeswoman for the district, says the two cases are unrelated. She echoed criticism found in an Oct. 20, 2014, district-funded investigation that Bigham had let his Teacher of the Year status go to his head and led to too many absences.

"Our hope was that after he concluded his 2014 Teacher of the Year duties that he would re-engage and focus on the classroom for the 2014-15 school year,” Conroy says, adding that "excessive time away and distraction during class time” continued to occur.

Bigham says the basis for their decision is “a complete load of crock” and that they skipped over the standard procedure for termination of a contracted teacher.

“I believe this is more bullying and harassment because I refuse to sign their nondisclosure agreement,” he says.

The troubles, Bigham says, started when he began to use the national stage to speak about his sexual orientation.

'Gag order'

Bigham was named Oregon’s 2014 Teacher of the Year by the Oregon Department of Education and the 2015 Teacher of the Year by the Oregon Education Association union. The former is part of a nationwide program in which Bigham visited the White House and met with President Barack Obama.

His selection represents a lot of firsts for the Oregon Teacher of the Year title: the first special education teacher, the first teacher of students outside of the K-12 grade levels, the first teacher to concurrently earn ODE’s Teacher of the Year and OEA’s Teacher of the Year.COURTESY PHOTO - Brett Bigham and Governor Kate Brown in Salem on March 23. Bigham was recognized on the floor of the House three days after his district put him on administrative leave.

But it is another first that Bigham says is causing him enormous strife with the district.

Bigham is the first openly gay Oregon Teacher of the Year, a fact he made clear during a Jan. 26, 2014, speech at the Columbia Gorge Education Service District and at several subsequent events.

He says that after the speech, his supervisor, Jeanne Zuniga, told him: “You need to stop saying you're gay in public. If you keep doing it, someone is going to shoot you in the head.”

Bigham says he brushed off her warnings and continued speaking about his sexual orientation until he was, he says, “given an order that I was no longer allowed to write or speak anything, day or night, unless my district approved it.”

According to a district-funded investigation, this was not an order but a suggestion because of an inaccurate March 16, 2014, opinion piece, which appeared in The Oregonian and criticized Common Core school standards. Bigham says the piece was controversial, but not nearly as strongly worded as the essay his supervisors signed off on for his Teacher of the Year nomination.

The fight has evolved into a flurry of complaints: two at the Bureau of Labor and Industries and two at the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission.

In them, Bigham claims that he was retaliated against in numerous demeaning ways, including being asked to clean his supervisor's office and get coffee for administrators.

“I had no choice but to file a complaint,” Bigham says. “I couldn't do my job.”

Report blames Bigham's ego

MESD is in a pickle. It is not legally allowed to talk about personnel issues.

“We can't comment on the specifics of Mr. Bigham’s situation,” says Laura Conroy, MESD spokeswoman, noting that neither his paid administrative leave nor his termination were for any disciplinary reason. “MESD’s policies include the ability to place any employee on administrative leave when they decide (to).”

(That assertion is currently under dispute with Bigham’s union.)

So, they hired Jim Buck, an investigator, to interview employees and write a 17-page report on the allegations. In it, Buck says Bigham's ego is to blame as he is blowing encounters out of proportion with reality.

“… Mr Bigham carried on with at least 180 events and there was little to no controversy regarding them, which reinforced administrative perceptions of no problem in this arena,” Buck wrote. “The fact that (Superintendent) Barbara Jorgensen asked him to speak at all the MESD graduations seems wholly inconsistent with a ‘gag order’ that Mr. Bigham was touting with external groups.”

The report also notes that Bigham’s sexual orientation doesn't seem to have anything to do with the majority of his claims of a hostile work environment.

“Mr. Bigham displays a propensity to exaggerate certain elements in a communication,” Buck wrote. “That unfortunate attribute diminishes his credibility as his assertions often are supported only by his skewed perspective or interpretation of communications rather than actual statements.”

“That thing is full of lies,” Bigham says, claiming that he has evidence backing up his version of events. "I have proof — he (Buck) didn’t ask me for my backup stuff."

What's fair for Teacher of the Year?

Conroy says the district, which nominated Bigham for the honor, supported Bigham’s Teacher of the Year status through two months of paid leave.

Bigham disputes that claim, arguing that he took a total of 15.5 days off for Teacher of the Year duties, plus five sick days.

(The district already has hired a substitute teacher through the end of the school year, including the May 15 prom that Bigham started.)

On Jan. 27, Jorgensen sent a letter to Bigham denying his request for leave for Teacher of the Year-related events.

“At this time, I believe you are of greatest benefit to your students when you are in the classroom,” Jorgensen wrote. “Accordingly, please be advised that I will not be approving any future leave requests by you related to speaking engagements or conference attendance unless I deem such requests to be directly related to and in support of your instructional responsibilities with the District.”

But Gresham High School teacher Michael Lindblad says since becoming Oregon’s 2015 Teacher of the Year, requests to speak have come from all corners of the state.

“I have been pretty busy,” Lindblad says, counting up 25 events since his selection was announced in November. Lindblad says at the National Teacher of the Year conference in February, he learned that 20 states give their teachers the year off to travel — South Carolina even gives their Teacher of the Year a car — and speak. “We were really laughing on how different each state approaches this,” he says.

Lindblad says in Oregon, the amount of class time a Teacher of the Year misses does come down to a negotiation between the district and the teacher, but he also says that going to speak is a big part of the honor.

“At the National Teacher of the Year conference, they train you to go out and use this opportunity to go out and make change in the world,” Lindblad says. “To me, I can't think of anything more important.”

Bigham agrees. He says he feels an obligation to speak out for his students, who are often marginalized in society because of their disabilities, and to let children struggling with their sexuality know that “it gets better.”

He says his best friend committed suicide when he was a sophomore in high school because of his struggle with his identity.

Bigham says he is happy that pictures of his partner and him — along with the news stories of his success as a teacher and struggle with MESD — have been spread all over the world on wire services and the Internet where young people might be inspired by them.

“What my district has done is ugly and unacceptable, but from it will come great good,” Bigham says.

He adds that he will continue to fight.

“I have to. I can't let: ‘You get crushed,’ be my message.”

More on the web:

On Twitter? Watch the hashtag #standwithbrett for more on this situation as it develops.


The search for a new superintendent for the largest Education Service District in the state is underway with the March 31 announcement of a search firm hired to aid in the process.

Multnomah Education Service District board hired Washington-based Northwest Leadership Associates after its March 5 decision to bar Superintendent Barbara Jorgensen from the building. Jorgensen is said to be working from home while the details of her separation agreement are worked out. She has not returned email requests for comment.

Board members and superintendents the Tribune spoke to are not saying why Jorgensen is no longer welcome at the district. But they do say what they are looking for in their next superintendent.

“Strong leadership,” says incumbent board candidate Doug Montgomery. “(Someone) who has the endorsement of the eight customer school districts within the county.”

“Someone who has a real talent for working collaboratively,” says board Vice Chairman Nels Johnson.

The previous MESD superintendent also left under mysterious circumstances. Ron Hitchcock, currently Assistant Superintendent of Clackamas Education Service District, filed a complaint after the board fired him in 2012, but later withdrew it.

“It was different reasons than this superintendent,” was all board chairman and former Multnomah County Sheriff Bernie Giusto would say. “Not the same kind of reasons at all.”

With a staff of 425 and a budget of $72 million, MESD is one of 19 umbrella districts in the state that offer school districts economies of scale on uncommon and expensive needs, such as nursing supports, special-education services, technology needs, training and alternative education options for juvenile criminals.

MESD covers the eight school districts of Multnomah County, which have about 100,000 students in all.

“I so, so want to see it become what it can be,” says Parkrose School District Superintendent Karen Gray, “and I think under the proper leadership it can turn into something that will be awesome.”

By Shasta Kearns Moore
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