La Cañada High School students are beginning an academic year’s second half without Principal Ian McFeat for the first time since 2013 as a result of six-figure legal settlements involving him, the school district and his wife, Christine Castillo, a former La Cañada Elementary School principal.
McFeat, who was hired as principal in July 2012, became the La Cañada Unified School District’s executive director of student services on Dec. 10, a move that district officials had said was a promotion. Later, it was revealed that he and Castillo had signed settlement agreements on Dec. 4 that stemmed from a Castillo lawsuit and determined his employment is terminated effective June 30.
Since The Outlook reported last month that McFeat has left and details of the settlement have been disseminated, the community has engaged in spirited discussion — in particular on a closed Facebook page, with more than 100 comments on the topic. Some parents have said they are glad the lawsuit has ended, albeit with questions regarding the cost and divided opinion over the unforeseen changes in leadership. In several Facebook posts, writers voiced displeasure that LCUSD had settled at all in a case that they said was bogus and declared that the hiring process for McFeat and Castillo had been flawed from the beginning.
LCHS parent Sugi Sorensen, who gave his thoughts on the page, said the reaction of many parents to McFeat’s departure is mixed. Sorensen is part of the group La Cañada Math Parents, which also has a closed Facebook page and website concerning math instruction in the district.
“Most parents who actually met or worked with Ian have expressed sadness at his departure,” Sorensen told The Outlook via email. “He was a dedicated and caring administrator who was willing to listen to anyone and everyone. However, I think he has been inextricably linked to his wife’s long-simmering lawsuit, so that has both hampered his ability to manage more effectively as principal, and engendered some negative feelings in the community.”
Meanwhile, La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation President Caroline Anderson replied on Facebook to a comment about the financial settlement McFeat is to receive. She wrote, “I can confirm that LCFEF does not fund any administrator’s salaries, nor do funds go towards any legal fees or payouts/settlements.”
The settlements call for McFeat to receive a sum equal to $133,192 and for Castillo to receive $385,000 in a lump-sum payment. The settlements arise from the lawsuit Castillo filed against the district on Dec. 28, 2016, alleging sexual discrimination and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional stress.
Dana McCune, the attorney representing LCUSD, declined to speak on the record about the case. He did confirm a significant portion of Castillo’s settlement is covered by the district’s insurance policy and McFeat’s payment is from the previously approved 2018-19 budget.
Superintendent Wendy Sinnette signed both settlement agreements on Dec. 5.
None of the parties involved is allowed to discuss the settlements or comment about each other, according to the agreements. Both Castillo and McFeat, according to the settlement agreements, are required to limit their responses. If asked about the settlements, they must say, “The matter has been resolved.”
TEACHERS GROUP’S REGRETS
While those closest to the case cannot or would not issue comment, others, like the La Cañada Teachers Association, expressed regret at the settlements’ outcome.
“We are sad to see McFeat leave because he has become such a big part of our community,” said association Vice President Gayle Nicholls-Ali in an email. “We have no idea what his future holds, but we wish him well in his future endeavors.”
Nicholls-Ali said the LCTA learned McFeat was leaving his post at an emergency staff meeting with Sinnette and school board members. The association was “never included” in any dialogue about the situation, she said.
“Basically, we had no idea that anything was going on regarding Mr. McFeat leaving the high school,” Nicholls-Ali said.
Another surprise, she said, came last year when parents learned McFeat had been diagnosed with colon cancer. He announced it at an LCHS graduation ceremony in late May 2018.
“It was a shock to all of us, students, staff and the community,” Nicholls-Ali said.
Sorensen said that when he attended high school PTSA meetings, McFeat frequently was present and answered questions.
“This is especially noteworthy and appreciated given his known medical condition,” Sorensen said.
Though the court documents don’t address the cancer diagnosis or McFeat’s personal reasons for leaving the district, they offer some detail about his exit from the school system.
According to his settlement, McFeat was to “immediately” submit a letter of resignation, to be effective June 30. He had expressed workplace complaints against the district including “alleged retaliation, discrimination and harassment,” according to the document.
In her 2016 lawsuit, Castillo alleged that Sinnette reacted negatively to her pregnancy when told on August 2012, just a month after she had moved from Seattle to Los Angeles to accept the LCE principal position.
“This is really going to upset your staff and parents,” Sinnette is alleged to have said to Castillo while Castillo’s husband, McFeat, was in attendance. “I need a drink.”
After Sinnette told the LCUSD Governing Board that Castillo was pregnant, according to the filing, the board told the superintendent to tell the principal that another conference between the two was needed.
The board, Sinnette is alleged to have said, was “disappointed” because Castillo “waited” to tell the superintendent about her pregnancy.
Later in August, the superintendent met with Castillo at LCHS and told the principal she would have liked knowing about the pregnancy sooner.
“I was very clear with you about what this job required,” Sinnette is alleged to have said. “This staff needs a lot of support and I told you that. I have to think about what we are going to tell your teachers and parents. This isn’t going to go over well.”
In January 2017, when The Outlook first wrote about the case, Governing Board members released a statement that said “we stand firmly alongside our superintendent, Wendy Sinnette, and will not tolerate any misrepresentation of her character or her behavior.”
The suit also stated that in October 2012, Castillo attended meetings with Patty Hager, then-LCUSD assistant superintendent of human resources, about pregnancy leave.
Hager is alleged to have stated she had never had a principal go on maternity leave before, so she would do her best to figure out how to handle the situation.
In numerous meetings, Castillo alleged, she asked Hager for clarity about her allowed leave time but received only vague responses and the assistant superintendent had grown “increasingly irritated,” so the principal researched options on her own.
Castillo, as a new LCUSD employee, was entitled to only 10 sick days, but through her research she discovered she missed the deadline to file for disability leave, according to the suit.
She kept working until Dec. 18, 2012, the day before her daughter Alissa McFeat was born, according to the suit, and stress from working resulted in birthing difficulties that led to her undergoing a cesarean section.
In June 2013, Sinnette gave Castillo her evaluation for the 2012-13 academic year, which included negative remarks from a staff survey and “other negative ratings that failed to take Ms. Castillo’s recent pregnancy and associated leave into consideration,” the suit said.
On March 4, 2014, Sinnette asked Castillo to attend a meeting “under the pretense that the subject of this conference was a reassignment of teachers” with Hager and Assistant Superintendent Anais Wenn, the suit said. But Castillo realized the meeting was about her evaluation as principal, according to the suit.
Castillo was reassigned in June 2015 to a position as a 1st-grade teacher after having been a principal since August 2012. Castillo alleged she was being retaliated against because of her pregnancy. At the time, her then-attorney, Ben Meiselas, said Castillo informed officials she was pregnant one month after she started work at LCE and was within her legal rights to do so.
The district conducted an internal investigation on April 5, 2015, that indicated Castillo was reassigned after “concerns about staff morale and an increasingly negative climate at LCE” that included a “group complaint from a majority of teachers at LCE.”
Meiselas, of the Los Angeles-based Geragos & Geragos law firm, said at the time a “principal-staff relationship” was not the real reason behind the reassignment as Castillo was in a relationship with her now-husband McFeat.
In November 2015, Castillo was placed on indefinite leave.
In March 2017, the former principal’s lawsuit was amended to include wrongful termination.
In the complaint, Castillo alleges Sinnette discriminated against, demoted and put her on indefinite leave.
The reason for the discrimination, Castillo alleged, was because she told Sinnette she had become pregnant a month after accepting the principal position in July 2012.
The LCUSD board denied the charges.
On Oct. 22 of 2018, Castillo filed for Meiselas to be removed as her lawyer and the court accepted, according to the court’s website.
McFEAT’S JOB SWITCH
Meanwhile, McFeat held the position of principal from 2012 until superintendent Sinnette announced in early December via email on letterhead from the district that he was being promoted to executive director. The same statement said Jim Cartnal, executive director of pupil programs and services, would become the interim principal of LCHS.
However, the settlement agreement revealed a different story, explaining that McFeat’s new promotion was in title only. He “shall be given the title as ‘executive director of student services’ and identified as such to any future/inquiring employers.” McFeat “shall not perform any services or engage in any duties as an executive director for the district,” unless the district makes a request, the settlement said.
The district agreed to continue to accept Castillo and McFeat’s two children at local schools, while Castillo was to immediately resign from employment with the district and withdraw from a re-employment list.
Castillo, McFeat, LCUSD board members and current administrative staff including Sinnette agree to “refrain from any disparaging statements” about the plaintiffs or district, according to the agreements.
The settlements do not hold any admission of liability, and Castillo and McFeat acknowledged the agreements are a compromise and not an “admission of the truth or falsity of any actual or potential claims” or an admission by the district of any fault or liability. Everyone involved will also bear their own costs, attorneys’ fees and other fees in connection with the settlement.
Other language in the settlements includes what LCUSD can specifically tell potential future employers about Castillo and McFeat’s previous employment positions and when they worked for the district.
‘THE KIDS REALLY LIKED HIM’
Former PTSA President Lisa Dick said she had a great working relationship with McFeat during her time and “I know the kids really liked him and he championed their causes.” She added he was a private person both before and after his cancer announcement and always kept his personal life separate from work and school.
Additionally, Dick said most students are familiar with interim principal Cartnal and he is regarded fondly among them.
Jeremy Milbrodt, LCHS Booster Club president, also said he enjoyed working with McFeat and added, “I will miss him.” He said the selection of Cartnal as interim principal was a great choice.
The teachers association also looks forward to a “supportive relationship” with Cartnal in the future, Nicholls-Ali said.
In an email, Governing Board President Brent Kuszyk said the board is not planning to change the district’s maternity/pregnancy policy in the wake of the settlement because current policies and administrative regulations were modeled on the California School Board Association’s guidelines and reflect best practices in industry standards.
The district will make its final assessment in late March to determine if Cartnal’s interim appointment is the “best fit” for everyone, Kuszyk said. If the position opens, candidates would be selected within and outside the district, he said.
Cartnal’s duties under his old position of executive director of pupil programs and services that are not taken care of will be handled by the superintendent’s office and the office of educational services, Kuszyk said.
If Cartnal doesn’t return to his old position, Kuszyk said, a “needs assessment” would be conducted and the district would also advertise the position. If offered, it would be a lower-level director position to help maximize savings, he said.
In an email, Cartnal wrote, “The interim title provides a pathway to permanent status and I very much hope that this transpires.”