Report: Board member Patricca created hostile work environment

Published: January 24, 2023 3:18 PM EST
Updated: January 26, 2023 12:14 PM EST

Bullying, threats, and intimidation, WINK News obtained the results of an investigation that found all of that taking place inside the School District of Lee County. Now, one school board member could face possible sanctions from the governor.

WINK News investigative reporter Peter Fleischer takes you through the allegations, the findings, and possible punishment.

WINK News broke this story last May when the school board first censured board member Chris Patricca after a whistleblower complaint accused her of creating a hostile work environment.

The final report, issued earlier this month but not yet made public, found the whistleblower complaints credible. That means the governor could suspend Patricca.

“I think we need to address the complaint that was given to us yesterday,” said Melisa Giovannelli during a school board meeting last May.

Lee School Board Attorney Kathy Dupuy-Bruno filed the whistleblower complaint in May 2022.

In it, she accuses school board member Chris Patricca of bullying and demeaning behavior. Dupuy-Bruno doubled down, saying Patricca subjected her to unwarranted criticism, threats and intimidation.

The report found evidence to support the complaints.

“I actually wasn’t very surprised,” said Giovannelli.

Board member Melisa Giovannelli is listed as one of the 12 people interviewed as part of the investigation. Giovannelli motioned for the whistleblower complaint to be investigated in the first place.

“I need for employees to feel safe. That we’re going to, as a board, make sure that they are. And change the culture of this district. And this is a start,” Giovannelli said.

The report finds Patricca directed Dupuy-Bruno to contact a federal investigator to get the status on an investigation into a district vendor, who was also a Patricca campaign donor.

Dupuy-Bruno refused.

The report also found Patricca “Criticized and undermined” Dupuy-Bruno and the district legal department “Frequently,” citing numerous examples of unwarranted behavior and that Patricca violated anti-bullying regulations.

“Finally, someone listened,” said former school board member Gwyn Gittens.

Gittens was also among the 12 people interviewed for the report.

She revealed to WINK News disturbing behavior she says took place behind closed doors.

“For four years when I sat on that board, I was bullied, yelled at, screamed at, and intimidated by Miss Patricca,” said Gittens.

The report, which comes nearly eight months after the whistleblower complaint, could lead to the governor getting involved.

State law gives Governor Ron DeSantis the power to suspend a school board member for malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties, or commission of a felony.

Again, the board has already censured Patricca, a formal expression of disapproval.

“In a perfect world, she would resign because of all of these incidents,” Gittens said.

“This board has to decide what we’re doing to do. And I look forward to that opportunity,” said Giovannelli.

Giovannelli would not say what the school board might do in addition to censuring Patricca.

Sources inside the Lee School district tell WINK News some officials have already begun reaching out to Governor DeSantis’ office to inform him about what is happening in Lee County. We have called his office and reached out to the whistleblower, Kathy Dupuy-Bruno, and Chris Patricca. So far, we have not received comment.

During a regularly scheduled school board meeting on Tuesday, 13 members of the public spoke out, some of whom called for Patricca to step down.

The speakers included former Lee County school board members Gwyn Gittens and Betsy Vaughn.

“When there are a plethora of incidents and bad behavior, when, if ever, will it be addressed,” Gittens asked. “We don’t allow bullying and intimidation by staff at schools, so why is it allowed by adults?”

“I can speak very specifically to all of this. I was one of the witnesses, I was one of the people interviewed,” Vaughn added about Patricca’s behavior. “Bullying and demeaning behavior, this is very believable.”

The board eventually got to the report about 90 minutes into the meeting.

Member Cathleen Morgan, who is also accused of threatening Dupuy-Bruno in the report, casted doubt on the findings.

“No material or documentary evidence. Merely allegations, he said, she said,” Morgan stated. “The 12 witnesses providing perceptions and hearsay. The conclusion of the report is that a whistleblower complaint was filed and it had no basis in fact.”

After more than 30 minutes of heated back-and-forth, the board voted to accept the report’s findings. Patricca never fully addressed the allegations inside the report, although she voted against accepting its findings.

The school board also approved a motion that will require all district staff to take anti-bullying training in the future.