On Thursday, January 4, the Maryland Court of Appeals–the state’s highest tribunal–announced that it would hear a whistleblower complaint case against Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) filed by Brian Donlon, a teacher at Richard Montgomery High School.
The case in question had its beginnings in December of 2014, when Donlon first filed the whistleblower complaint, claiming that MCPS had unduly punished him after he disclosed to senator Paul Pinsky and reporters at the Maryland Gazette and Washington Post that Richard Montgomery was artificially inflating its AP enrollment rate.
In a document published by the Parent’s Coalition of Montgomery County, Donlon notes that, while the school had students believe they were enrolled in AP US History courses, “these classes in no way met the AP criteria as set by the College Board,” pointing out that the courses were labelled ‘MYP’ (referring to the Middle Years Programme) on the schedules distributed to teachers, student schedules listed them under ‘AP’.
In justifying his actions, Donlon wrote: “I believe the leadership of Richard Montgomery H.S. is engaging in a practice that is deceptive to students, parents, faculty, colleges/universities, the College Board, and IB/MYP officials…current practices…undermine the MCPS commitment to the Advanced Placement program and overall rigor.”
The opinion released by the Court of Special Appeals, which found that whistleblower protections did not apply to Donlon, noted that: “Donlon alleged the school [Richard Montgomery] retaliated against him for speaking to the newspaper about the story when in the fall semester he was assigned no AP courses.”
In June of 2014, the school assigned Donlon to teach AP Psychology, “a course that he had requested not to teach because he believed that he did not have the requisite background to teach it.” Moreover, Donlon claimed he was also treated rudely by then social studies department head Kim Lansell and criticized for missing work to attend union meetings and teacher trainings.
Under the State Contractor Employees’ Whistleblower protection, according to the People’s Law Library of Maryland, those whose employers provide services to the state of Maryland are eligible to receive compensation if they were punished after reporting evidence of mismanagement.
This is the law which Donlon has appealed under, although conflict has arisen over whether Donlon should be considered a state employee. Donlon has purported that, given the large influence that the Maryland State Board of Education has on county school systems and the fact that the pension system for public school teachers is state-administered, he should be considered as such.
However, MCPS has countered by pointing to Donlon’s teaching contract and tax documentation, which cite MCPS as his employer. Moreover, a representative of the Maryland Comptroller Office testified that there was no current or former state employee named Brian J. Donlon.
The administrative law court in which this case was first brought sided with MCPS. Donlon then applied for judicial review from the county Circuit court, which subsequently sided with him because, according to Bethesda Magazine, “it was “troubling” that MCPS could qualify as a state agency in some situations but reject the label in Donlon’s case.”
The case was then brought to an appellate court, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which, as stated before, released an opinion in July of 2017 stating that whistleblower protections did not apply in this case. Now, some 6 months later, the case will resurface due to the Court of Appeals’ announcement.
Yet despite the extensive path this court case has taken, within the student body, even at Richard Montgomery High School (where Donlon continues to teach government and global politics), it remains relatively unknown. A senior at Richard Montgomery who wished to remain anonymous noted that the issue “definitely isn’t well known.” He added, regarding the case: “I think there’s a general lack of awareness amongst students.”
Those who do know of the issue, though, have come rallying to Donlon’s support. A junior at Richard Montgomery who also wished to remain anonymous said, of Donlon’s actions: “He did do something honest, because [his disclosures] prevented the problem of evaluating the class for college credit down the line. [He was] stopping it right here instead of having students’ supposed credit be taken away at the college level.”
Students of Donlon’s, both former and present, have served as testimonies to the excellence of his character. The aforementioned senior stated: “Mr. Donlon is a very genuine teacher—he cares about his class, and enjoys teaching about the current state of world affairs.”
All in all, whilst the complaint that began this chain of events is now nearly three years old, the issues that this case raises are as pertinent as ever. This was seen in the contrasting decisions of different state and local courts, as well as the opinions of students.
Whereas one student voiced the belief that the whistleblower law should apply to “all teachers” –he also noted that this would include instructors working for private organizations–another disagreed, saying: “I think there are certain rights to privacy and confidentiality that should be respected, especially for firms.”
The issue has in part been addressed by the state legislature, who in October of 2017 passed the Public School Employee Whistleblower Protection Act, which, as its name suggests, provides new protections on freedom of speech, with regards to whistleblowing, for public educators.
However, given that the act was passed after Donlon’s initial complaint, the fate of his case remains in the hands of the Maryland Court of Appeals. While it appears that the court date has not yet been set, according to Bethesda Magazine, the Court of Appeals requested that the special appeals court send them the case record by January 2 of this year.
Article by MoCo Student staff Angela Sun of Richard Montgomery High School