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December complaint by HR Director Ken Bucchi results in formal action, board apology

PMG FILE PHOTO - Oregon Trail School Board Member Nicole O'Neill. Oregon Trail School District board member Nicole O'Neill has been censured for what fellow members describe as "multiple violations of board policies and teacher standards and practices rules."

Following the completion of a third-party investigation, the board approved the censure in a 6-1 vote on April 13.

The investigation into O'Neill's actions began after district Human Resources Director Ken Bucchi filed a formal complaint on Dec. 7, 2019.

"(Censuring) doesn't take away many powers," explained Board Vice-chairman Kurt McKnight. "The intent of this action was to send a very clear and loud message that this behavior is not going to be tolerated."

In his initial complaint, Bucchi claimed that O'Neill made threatening comments to Superintendent Aaron Bayer, declaring an ultimatum that if Bayer did not "discipline" Ken Bucchi, "she would file a complaint with the Oregon Ethics Commission that would likely be 'damaging to the District's reputation in the run up to the bond measure election.'"

"The quid pro quo here is clear and undeniable," Bucchi stated in his complaint. "The superintendent was told by his superior, Board Member O'Neill, to discipline me in exchange for her not taking a separate action that she believed would have a serious negative impact on myself and the district bond measure."

Bucchi explained that because Bayer is ultimately responsible for the passage of the bond, she is threatening him with a blemish on his record if he dared ignore her ultimatum.

"Such a patently obvious threat was clearly designed to increase the likelihood that the superintendent wrongfully disciplines me rather than risk failure of the bond measure even though discipline was completely unwarranted, retaliatory in nature and unsupported by the facts," Bucchi added.

Bucchi also alleged that O'Neill had used members of the community, including some who testified during board meetings, "as surrogates for her ongoing harassment."

According to the formal report from third-party licensed investigator Susan Nisbet, Bucchi's claim about O'Neill coercing community members was unfounded, but the investigation did find that "O'Neill's preparation of public speakers in advance of the meeting and her failure to disclose this communication to the board was not open, fair or honest and suggests a hidden agenda."

'A parent's perspective'

Back on Sept. 18, 2019, parent Cara Robinson filed a complaint with the School Board, accusing Superintendent Bayer of mismanagement and chastising the board for its "lack of meaningful oversight and accountability of our district's superintendent."

Since the board's response on Nov. 13, 2019, Robinson has returned to the directors' meetings to complain that the elected leaders did not reply to her complaint in the appropriate amount of time and argued that the board doesn't listen to the concerned parents in the district.

It later came to light that O'Neill had been talking with community members and parents outside of public meetings since joining the board in September. She ran last year on the platform that she would bring a parent's perspective to the board as someone with children currently enrolled in the district. Robinson was among the parents she had talked with outside of board meetings.

"The community has become really engaged and involved and that's really exciting to me," O'Neill said earlier this year. "We're in a situation where people are feeling heard. The schools should be a pillar of the community."

O'Neill said she's focused on "breaking down barriers between the district and others."

"This just illustrates why I'm here in the first place," she added.

PMG FILE PHOTO - The Oregon Trail School Board of Directors censured member Nicole O'Neill in April. The body vs. the individual

While O'Neill and a few vocal members of the community said she's simply living up to that promise, others view her as a "rogue board member."

"In my time here, no board member has ever (acted like this)," Bucchi said. "It's disconcerting. From day one, it's been all antagonism. I want to be able to work with her."

"This is where she's going to get into trouble," McKnight said. "She's representing herself as the School Board, when she's really a rogue board member. The report pointed out some pretty severe ethical violations. She's been warned several times that we act as one — not as individuals. There seems to be an inability to cooperate as a body."

McKnight added that he doesn't understand O'Neill's complaints as the district has a record of student achievement.

"Personal agendas need to be set aside as a board member," he said.

McKnight was named in Nicole O'Neill's January response to Bucchi's complaint. O'Neill claimed McKnight and Board Chairman DJ Anderson had been providing complainant Bucchi with information from emails between the board chairmen and herself.

"The complaint against me includes quotations of emails that I sent to Mr. Anderson and Mr. McKnight," O'Neill wrote. "It also includes a quotation from a telephone conversation I had with Mr. McKnight, asking for his help after I learned the complainant was speaking negatively about me in public. From the beginning, board members have been sharing my communications with the complainant."

Anderson, at the time, declined to comment, saying the district has contracted with a third party to investigate the complaint and Anderson is not involved in said investigation to remain impartial.

In later communications between O'Neill and the district, O'Neill mentioned Bucchi's sons, specifically that one son who attended the University of Oregon and while covering an Antifa rally for the school newspaper was involved in an altercation. O'Neill claimed she felt "unsafe" based on reports by a known anarchist website, which wrote about Bucchi's son and referred to him as a "nazi."

"Gentlemen: At this point, I am concerned for the safety of myself and my family," she said in her email. "Mr. Bucchi's sons, [redacted] and [redacted] Bucchi, are tied to white supremacist groups. [redacted] Bucchi recently harassed women's march participants."

In her report, Nisbet said Bucchi's resulting addendum complaining that O'Neill's email pertaining to his sons was not factual and negatively represented them was founded.

"The preponderance of the evidence indicates that O'Neill represented negative information about Bucchi's sons posted on an anarchist website as fact in her email of December 9, 2019, to Bayer, Anderson, McKnight, and Roberts," Nisbet wrote in the report of her investigation. "The allegation is founded and appears to violate district policy BBF Board Member Ethics and OAR 584-020-0010(1) and (5). Based upon the available evidence, O'Neill's email statement, "The combination of his sons' aggression toward women…and his frightening behavior towards myself…" are without merit and appear to violate district policy BBF Board Member Ethics and OAR 584-020-0010(1) and (5)."

Since O'Neill's formal censure, Bucchi said he was content with the results and surprised to also receive a letter of apology from the board.

"The investigation found an abundance of inculpatory evidence that Board Member O'Neill violated District Board policies and TSPC standards for ethical educators on all three of the main charges," Bucchi said. "I'm satisfied with the Board's cogent response to those findings, which included an official censure of Board Member O'Neill and the issuance of a formal apology letter to me for the harm she caused me and my children."

A path forward?

Since April 13, both McKnight and O'Neill's have expressed that their views on this action greatly differ, however, both appear to have a similar goal going forward: focusing on the students of Oregon Trail School District.

"I dread this stuff," McKnight said. "I'm in hopes that we'll be able to get back together now as a full board and work together. The desire of other board members is to focus on students: student achievements and student outcomes. As a board member, that's where my focus lies: on what matters."

"All of this happened because I was responsive to community members' concerns," O'Neill said. "And, I will continue to be responsive to community members' concerns."

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