by Audrey Thomasson
HEATHSVILLE—An administrator in Northumberland County School District is suing the school board, two school board members and a private citizen over their “civil conspiracy, tortious interference with contract,” and “removal” last June from his position as principal at the middle school. The action was filed with the Clerk of Northumberland Circuit Court on November 8, but was not served to defendants until this week.
Michael A. Ransome is seeking a total of $7.4 million in damages: $1.5 million in compensatory damages, $4.5 million in three-fold damages and $350,000 in punitive damages from each of the four defendants, school board members Dana O’Bier and Gayle Sterrett, the school board, and parent Steve Berman.
Ransome was employed as principal of the middle school from July, 2014 until June, 2016, when he was transferred to the central office after issues emerged over privacy of student records, failing Standards of Learning (SOL) scores and failure in reporting student discipline matters. The action was taken in a controversial special session that resulted in a 2-1-1 vote, with O’Bier and Sterrett in favor, Gerald Howard against and board vice chairman Betty Christopher abstaining. Board chairman Dean Sumner was absent.
Ransome was moved to a newly created central office position as director of achievement gap initiative at the same $78,000 salary.
In Ransome’s 34-page complaint, he points out that as an African-American, he is part of a protected class. He notes that O’Bier, Sterrett and Berman are “Caucasians” and accuses them of being “racists…motivated by hatred, spite, ill-will and a desire to injure him.” He further asserts that the defendants targeted, harassed and repeatedly defamed his previously untarnished 20-year reputation as an educator.
He alleges they “planned and schemed” for his termination by colluding with a parent to fabricate a story, engaging in business conspiracy, tortious interference and breech of his contract.
He claims their “false statements…have been devastating, both professionally and personally” causing him to suffer from “severe anxiety, stress, panic, sleeplessness, headaches and the sense of betrayal and deep disappointment” and caused permanent damage to his reputation.
“Moving Mr. Ransome to the Central Office gave him the opportunity to work on his passion—closing the achievement gap,” Sterrett responded. “It is a job that would help so many children who are lagging behind. How is that a demotion? How does that damage his reputation?”
Sterrett noted that reassignments in administrative positions occur often in education and at the final discretion of the school board.
O’Bier, who recently fought off an unsuccessful attempt to remove her from office by a group headed by supervisor Jim Long, said the lawsuit is a further distraction and waste of county funding. “How are we helping the education of our children by taking board members to court every month?”
“There is so much inaccuracy in the lawsuit,” said Berman. “I know the facts from my side and what I’ve documented. I’m acting as a parent protecting my children and all the kids at the school.”
Dr. Rebecca Gates, who was terminated as superintendent November 9, said she has seen the lawsuit and responded in full to Ransome’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. On the advice of her attorney, she declined to comment further.
In preparation for the lawsuit, Ransome submitted a request August 17 to the school board and Northumberland County under the FOIA for access to all correspondence pertaining to him by school board members. The Rappahannock Record obtained a copy of his initial request, which was printed on Northumberland County Public School stationary and executed by central office employee Lisa Day from the school board offices.
Additionally, the Record obtained a copy of a letter to O’Bier and Sterrett from Ransome’s attorney Steven Biss, dated September 30, offering a “confidential” settlement and release of all claims for a $750,000 payment.