DENVER – Alex Marrero, who is set to be confirmed next week as the next superintendent of Denver Public Schools, was named in a federal lawsuit filed Friday that alleges he and other New Rochelle, N.Y., school district members retaliated against the district’s former medical director and left her out of key discussions and meetings regarding the district’s COVID-19 response.
The lawsuit, first reported Friday by The Denver Post, was filed on behalf of Dr. Brooke Balchan and names Marrero, the City School District of New Rochelle, the district’s former superintendent, deputy superintendent, human resources administrators and others in district leadership. It was filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
In the lawsuit, Balchan and her attorneys allege the district leadership retaliated against her when she voiced concerns through the initial months of the pandemic and into late 2020 about the district’s health and safety protocols and when she took leave under the Family Medical Leave Act.
Marrero had been hired as the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in January 2020 and was named interim superintendent of the district in fall 2020.
Denver Public Schools (DPS) officials announced on Wednesday that he had been chosen as the next superintendent for the district and that the two were in contract negotiations ahead of a June 3 board vote on whether or not to confirm him as the next superintendent.
The lawsuit alleges that when New Rochelle early on became an area known to have community spread of the virus in New York, Balchan was working to understand the changing health and safety information coming in from other public health officials. But the suit alleges the district leadership “began silencing and impeding Dr. Balchan’s efforts to keep the school community informed, prepared and safe.”
It says she warned superiors and others in the state government about what she says was the then-superintendent’s “failure to heed public health advice” but that instead of them listening, she was “marginalized” by the district and its attorneys.
“Amidst a global health pandemic, the District’s Medical Director, Dr. Balchan, experienced retaliation by being excluded from meetings; assigned new roles without discussion or additional compensation; given last minute directives; had her medical judgment dismissed or ignored; experienced humiliation in front of others and intimidation by District legal counsel, with threats of insubordination; and her medical leave request was mismanaged,” the lawsuit states.
The City School District of New Rochelle said in a statement Friday evening it had yet to be served with the lawsuit and that once it did, it would review the allegations and determine whether it would make any further public comment.
“The District categorically denies any current or former District employees have been silenced or retaliated against, in any manner, in connection with the District’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the district said in a statement.
“The District takes great pride in the manner in which its leadership team has handled all aspects of this unprecedented crisis. Any assertion that District representatives have acted in an unlawful manner in responding to the pandemic is simply false.”
Last March, according to the lawsuit, then-Superintendent Laura Feijoo failed to follow Balchan’s advice to close schools in early March after they knew there were positive cases and symptomatic people that included students and staff from the district.
It says that Marrero in September chose a different health-screening platform for students than what Balchan had recommended without consulting with her as students were set to come back to school in mid-October, and that he made late changes to a plan to close district schools for two weeks in late November as cases again surged.
The suit alleges that on Dec. 1, Marrero also changed a plan developed in the days beforehand at a board of education meeting and canceled a planned post-Thanksgiving pause – instead announcing students would return to in-person class on Dec. 10 without a testing program in place. The suit says board members criticized Balchan and her plans during the meeting in “disparaging” remarks.
A human resources staffer with whom Balchan had disagreed on the handling of the district’s COVID response, and whom Balchan had previously filed a complaint against, was added to email chains by Marrero, the suit alleges, as she worked to come up with written protocols for testing.
The suit says in mid-December, Marrero emailed Balchan regarding an upcoming meeting she was to attend “to discuss certain concerns related to your performance.” It says that during the meeting, she “discovered that she was again being targeted and harassed” over the human resources staffer’s “misinterpretation of COVID-19 protocols.”
On Dec. 17, according to the lawsuit, she took a sick day because she was “overwhelmed with fear and anxiety.” The suit said she stayed away from work, with a doctor’s note, “because she remained unwell and unable to return to her toxic work environment.”
Further, the suit alleges, Marrero put together a plan that was emailed out in early January to bus all school staff to get vaccinated despite them not being prioritized for vaccination by the state at that time except for medical staff. The suit says she alerted the county and state health departments, which led to the planned vaccination trip being canceled and the hospital being fined.
Later that month and into February, according to the suit, Marrero barred Balchan from returning to work pending an evaluation, which found she was fit to perform her official duties. She requested reinstatement and in late February was told by Marrero that the district hadn’t made a decision yet on whether she could return, per the lawsuit. She had filed a complaint with the state, which opened an investigation, and reported in early March to the U.S. Department of Labor that her rights under the FMLA had been violated, according to the suit.
The lawsuit claims Balchan was “wrongly silenced and removed from her position” and “has been retaliated against for speaking up about matters of health and safety by individuals who are charged with leading the district.”
“Dr. Balchan feels humiliated and is concerned that her reputation and standing as Medical Director for the District is forever tarnished,” the suit states.
Denver Public Schools Board of Education President Carrie Olson and Vice President Jennifer Bacon issued a statement saying they had reviewed the information and still have "full confidence" in Marrero.
"The complaint was filed against New Rochelle district leadership and not Dr. Marrero alone. We have reviewed the information contained in the complaint that involves Dr. Marrero, and we have been in contact with New Rochelle School District about the matter. We have full confidence in Dr. Marrero, and we stand behind our choice for superintendent," they said.
A spokesperson for the Colorado Education Association said the CEA would not have a statement Friday because its leaders were out of town.
DPS Board Director Tay Anderson said in a statement he had not yet read the lawsuit.
“Therefore, I am unable to provide comment I will have to direct you back to Denver Public schools for a comment,” Anderson said.
Rob Gould, a special education teacher and president-elect of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, provided the following statement:
"Our hearts go out to all of those effected by COVID-19, as we know the New Rochelle community has been affected. Most importantly, DCTA’s top priority has always been the teaching and learning conditions of our students and educators, especially during these unprecedented times. We will continue to follow the case that includes the entire administrative team of New Rochelle."
Marrero, 38, was lauded by DPS Board President Carrie Olson on Wednesday, saying the board was excited to confirm Marrero as the new superintendent. She and Marrero brushed off some concerns voiced by community members that Marrero wasn’t from the area, touting his experience as a multi-lingual learner and someone who performed many jobs within district leadership.
Marrero was chosen over Andre Wright and Stephanie Soliven – the other two finalists – out of a pool of 85 original applicants. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union for DPS teachers, said in a statement Wednesday it supported Marrero’s selection.