Ex-Mancos principal argues for lawsuit against district

DENVER – Lawyers went to federal court Thursday to argue whether a former Mancos school principal can continue her lawsuit against the school district.

Laura Harper, the former secondary school principal, sued Mancos School District RE-6 and Superintendent Brian Hanson in 2010, claiming her 2009 firing was a breach of contract and deprived her of due process.

Harper was almost finished with her second year at Mancos when the school board voted 4-1 to renew her contract for a third year.

After the vote, she and Hanson began hiring a new special-education teacher, and Harper encouraged a former colleague from Dolores to apply. Hanson did not want to hire him, and when the teacher called Harper, she told him Hanson would not grant him an interview.

When the teacher complained to a school board member, Hanson asked the board to rescind Harper’s contract for disclosing confidential statements to the teacher. Harper later sued, claiming the board breached the contract they offered just weeks earlier.

In court Thursday, Brent Case, a lawyer for the school district, argued that the board could not have breached the contract because no written contract existed.

“What’s clear here is there was no (written contract) for the 2009-2010 school year,” Case said.

Harper’s lawyer, Cathy Cooper, argued that the school board’s vote, taken in a public meeting, constituted a legally binding contract.

“The board had already acted on April 15 to approve her continued employment for the 2009-10 school year,” Cooper said. “Nothing more is needed to complete that contract.”

Harper also claims that Hanson’s conversations with fellow superintendents in Southwest Colorado made it impossible for her to find work in the area, but Case disputed that.

“No one at the district – not Mr. Hanson or any other employee – said anything that impugned her character,” Case said.

Case said Hanson never mentioned Harper’s name in the conversations, but that brought an incredulous reaction from U.S. District Judge William Martinez.

“Hold on. In a tiny little town like this? Please,” Martinez said.

Martinez did not rule Thursday on two motions from Case to drop the lawsuit or quickly rule for the school district. But he told Case that district officials never gave Harper a chance to defend herself.

“Apart from the law, I’m really disturbed at how this woman was treated. Your clients didn’t even give her the minimum courtesy,” the judge said.

The lawsuit could hinge on how Harper’s job is treated under the law. Case argued that as a second-year principal, Harper legally was a “probationary teacher” whose contract can be dropped for any reason in her first three years on the job.

Cooper argued that her client was hired to be an administrator and should not be treated as an untenured teacher.

Martinez will issue a written ruling later, but he did not say when.

jhanel@durangoherald.com