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Ex-Hamilton superintendent’s leadership style questioned in previous job

Tony Orr resigned under less-than-normal circumstances from previous job with Northwestern Schools.

The leadership style of former Hamilton City Schools superintendent Tony Orr was criticized at his previous job as head of another Ohio school system, according to documents obtained by the Journal-News.

Orr, who resigned earlier this month after being the focus of a Hamilton Board of Education-ordered investigation into his conduct, was previously superintendent of Northwestern Schools in Clark County.

The Journal-News was the first to obtain and report on an attorney’s Jan. 19 letter to Hamilton school board members detailing a range of allegations made against Orr by some school employees. That letter led to the board hiring an independent investigator to look into claims of sexual harassment and other accusations.

MORE: Ex-Hamilton school leader accused of sexual harassment and more

On Feb. 5, the board ordered Orr on paid leave.

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Orr resigned on April 12 — citing personal reasons — as part of a separation agreement approved unanimously by the five-member board. The agreement pays Orr through July and then pays him an additional $130,000.

Orr’s departure isn’t the first time he has resigned as superintendent under less-than-normal circumstances.

According to documents obtained by the Journal-News through an Ohio Public Records request, Orr was cited by a Northwestern board member during his previous superintendent’s job for a style of communication that was described as “dictatorial, not collaborative in nature.”

Orr left his Northwestern Schools job early as part of a transition agreement with that district’s school board.

PREVIOUS REPORT: Hamilton Schools hire Clark County school district leader 

Orr received high marks in almost all aspects of his job evaluations while Superintendent of Northwestern Schools, but he was told by at least one board member he needed to improve his communicative style, according to his 2013-2014 school year evaluation.

“Tony continues to lack quality communication skills … (and) Tony needs to learn to improve his listening skills in working with the board,” wrote a Northwestern board member.

Moreover, the board member wrote that when it comes to state laws on board procedures: “Tony does not know board policy.”

“He does not know school law and he often fails to look into a matter before asserting an option and then taking action. He has put the district into several messy situations because of his behavior,” wrote a board member.

RELATED: Tony Orr’s letter draws Catholic schools’ ire

According to public records, Orr told the Northwestern board on April 1, 2015 he was resigning — effective Aug. 1, 2015 — to take the top job in Hamilton.

But Orr was later told by the board not to report to work at Northwestern Schools starting in late May 2015 until his contract ended in July — as part of a transition agreement between himself the board.

No allegations of misconduct were made by Northwestern officials against Orr, records show.

Orr started leading the 10,000-student Hamilton City Schools in August 2015.

Recent public records requests and reviews by the Journal-News of Orr’s personnel file at Hamilton showed no similar criticisms from board members since 2015. Orr’s job evaluations by the school board at Hamilton have been overwhelmingly positive.

But the board’s independent investigation of allegations against Orr, members contend, is not a public document but rather covered under attorney-client privilege laws.

At the time of Orr’s hiring in 2015 the Hamilton school board voted unanimously to give him the job. His work at the Butler County school district included improvement in 18 of 23 academic areas as measured by the Ohio Department of Education.

A LONE “NO” VOTE

In 2017, Orr had his contracted extended by the Hamilton board until 2020 and was earning an annual salary of $156,818.

But one board member — Tom Alf — voted against extending Orr’s contract.

MORE: Hamilton school leader gets extended contract but also a ‘no’ vote

Alf was not a member of the Hamilton board when all members voted to hire Orr in 2015.

At the time of the August 2017 vote to extend Orr’s contract, Alf declined to comment as to his reasoning behind his vote, but now says it was due to concerns he had that later were reflected in recent allegations made by some school employees against Orr.

Alf told the Journal-News this week that before the vote in August to extend Orr’s contract, he made the one-hour drive to Clark County and met with Northwestern Schools officials. There, he reviewed the same personnel documents that the Journal-News has obtained.

Alf said some of his fellow board members didn’t appreciate the individual efforts he took to look into Orr’s past job performance at Northwestern Schools.

“They asked me why I was sticking my nose up there (Northwestern Schools) and said leave Tony (Orr) alone because we are making (academic) progress,” said Alf, a retired Hamilton Schools assistant superintendent and former principal for the district.

“But to me it was progress at what price?” he said, referring to the discord among some school employees that Orr is alleged to have caused.

MORE: Hamilton school leader resigns

Alf, however, praised board members for their response to the allegations against Orr.

“I am pleased with the way it was handled when the allegations were told to the board,” he said referring to the hiring of an independent investigator.

Alf credited Orr with “bringing in some good people and developing good training in the schools.”

“We now have a tremendous team throughout the district and our schools are going on as normal,” he said of Orr’s efforts.

Alf also said the board’s decision to agree to a separation agreement — paying Orr through July and an additional $130,000 — was the most cost-effective option.

“Considering all the resources and all the scenarios, it was the best route for all involved,” he said.

Hamilton Schools’ annual operating budget is about $100 million.

“I’m everyone’s school board member, including the taxpayers,” said Alf.

SCHOOL BOARD REMAINS SILENT

Other members of the board have yet to comment publicly.

Hamilton Board of Education President Steve Isgro re-iterated before the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting that district officials don’t have the independent investigation report into allegations about Orr’s behavior before he was ordered on paid leave on Feb. 5.

“At this time we can’t provide any information from the report,” Isgro told the three dozen audience members at the Hamilton Schools Central Office meeting room.

But former Hamilton school board candidate Chris Mate, who ran and lost his election last fall for the board, quickly filled the vacuum by taking to the podium and blasting the board’s continued silence.

MORE: Former Hamilton school board candidate criticizes board for silence on former superintendent

Mate singled out fellow board candidates — now board members — Isgro, Rob Weigel and Laurin Sprague, saying all three had “talked about how they believed in transparency and that the business of the school board should be conducted in the full light of public view.”

“The decision by this board to withhold the (report) findings of the independent investigation of Tony Orr are in direct conflict with those statements,” said Mate, who claimed last fall that anonymous emails sent throughout the city community — smearing him — harmed his board campaign.

“Now you are using the ruse of attorney-client privilege to keep the report secret. I believe this report contains information indicating Tony Orr was behind those emails and may have had help from school district staff,” said Mate, who is a former district official with Hamilton Schools.

Despite numerous Ohio Public Records requests from the Journal-News, Hamilton school district officials maintain the report is covered under attorney-client privilege laws and that their district lawyer has the only copies of the document.

“We elected you and you used public tax money for the investigation. The allegations presented (in the attorney’s letter) are troubling. If even some of them proved to be true, Mr. Orr should have been fired with no severance,” Mate said.

“As a victim of Mr. Orr’s unethical and unprofessional behavior — and a taxpayer — I believe I, along with our entire community, are entitled to the findings in the report,” said Mate, who now works as the assistant principal of curriculum and academics for Badin High School, a private Catholic school in the city.

Mate, however, offered no evidence of Orr’s involvement in the emails circulated last fall critical of his candidacy.

No other speakers before the board addressed any circumstances regarding the investigative report or Orr’s work in the district or his departure.

When asked to comment on the reported allegations, Orr told the Journal-News on Monday: “On the advice of my attorney, I decline to make any comment.”

On Wednesday, messages were left with Orr — and his attorney — seeking comments on the evaluations from Northwestern Schools and Alf’s comments.

Orr’s attorney — Dennis Pergram — replied to the Journal-News via email: “Due to the fact that Mr. Orr’s focus is on the future neither he nor I wish to comment.”

Hamilton Schools’ attorney William Deters II has not responded to multiple requests from the Journal-News to comment regarding the investigative report or the letter sent to him on Jan. 19 listing the allegations against Orr, which included:

• Quid pro quo sexual harassment of female employees

• Hostile environment sexual harassment of employees

• Ethnically hostile and abusive behavior on at least one occasion witnessed by several employees

• Ordering subordinates to delete district e-mail records

• Discriminating against special education students

• Attempting to unprofessionally and dishonestly influence the last board election

• Ordering bad faith evaluations of employees for personal reasons

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