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Former Camp Crystal Director sues Prescott Cowles, Carlee Simon, and School Board for defamation and intentional interference with a contract

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

ALACHUA COUNTY, Fla. – Former Camp Crystal Director Scott Burton and his wife, Alachua Elementary School Principal Holly Burton (formerly Principal of Shell Elementary in Hawthorne), have filed a lawsuit against Alachua County School Board (ACSB), Former Alachua County Public School Superintendent Carlee Simon, and current School Board candidate Prescott Cowles for defamation, intentional interference with a contract, intentional interference in business relationships, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. All five current members of the school board–Leanetta McNealy, Tina Certain, Robert Hyatt, Mildred Russell, and Gunnar Paulson–are named in the lawsuit. Cowles is listed as “assistant to [Simon], support staff and her confidant.”

The lawsuit claims damages in excess of $15,000, not including costs and attorney fees.

Burtons say the whole thing began at a Hawthorne community meeting

In the lawsuit, Ms. Burton claims that her family was targeted by Simon and the School Board following a community meeting in Hawthorne in October of 2021, during which it has been reported that Simon said the school district planned to build a new K-12 school in Hawthorne and Ms. Burton, taken by surprise, expressed concerns about a K-12 school and the loss of Shell Elementary and what the school means to the community.

About eight days after the meeting, Mr. Burton was summoned to Simon’s office and questioned about his living arrangements at Camp Crystal. Burton maintains that his contract requires him to live on-site and that previous Camp Directors have lived at the camp at no charge, including utilities and satellite services. However, Simon reportedly told Mr. Burton that he would be required to sign a lease with ACSB to continue living at the camp. She also reportedly questioned him about the terms under which his children attended the camp.

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Simon’s letter, allegedly backed by information from Cowles, launches investigation

In early November, Simon sent an email to ACSB that accused Mr. Burton of fraud, misuse of taxpayer funds, financial mismanagement, and ethical violations. The letter made it seem as if the Burtons were improperly receiving housing and utilities. The lawsuit alleges that much of the information used to write the letter was furnished by Cowles. The lawsuit says that the letter was “an attempt to fabricate and produce false and damaging allegations that were tantamount to a witch hunt.”

The lawsuit also says Cowles “was only too glad to assist, as it was common knowledge he had set his sights on Mr. Burton’s job.” The lawsuit notes that Cowles was “an interesting choice of a ‘witness'” because he only worked at the camp from August 2019 through 2020, and there was no camp in 2020. The lawsuit alleges that Cowles has been “outed for accessing Mr. Burton’s private and confidential communications without permission in an attempt to have Mr. Burton terminated. Upon information and belief, Cowles is responsible for furnishing much of the untrue allegations about Mr. Burton to the media.”

Simon gives Ms. Burton a low evaluation

Four days later, Ms. Burton says she received the worst evaluation she has ever received, that Simon had never even visited Shell Elementary during the school year, and that Simon did not offer any feedback to justify the low evaluation. Ms. Burton said Simon told her that she “does not believe that any individual should be rated as highly effective because that would indicate one has hit their ceiling.”

Mr. Burton placed on administrative leave

In January, after Mr. Burton was ordered to sign a lease with ACSB, Simon notified the district Human Resources department that Mr. Burton was involved in an incident involving “serious concerns about financial mismanagement and fraud” at the camp, and an investigation was opened despite having no complaint other than the letter from Simon. Mr. Burton was then placed on administrative leave and frozen out of his email account.

The lawsuit says that both prior to and after Mr. Burton was placed on leave, both Simon and Certain “knowingly and maliciously published false, misleading, damaging and slanderous statements” to individuals, the School Board, and the media, “which have harmed Mr. Burton’s reputation.”

Financial audit that backed Burton was allegedly withheld

The lawsuit says that a financial audit was performed, and Mr. Burton obtained it on February 28, 2022, after requesting it on February 4. The audit did not support Simon’s claims that Burton had acted inappropriately but instead concluded that the district had changed reporting requirements in a way that was incompatible with the camp’s registration software and noted that there was no scholarship policy in place.

This audit was reportedly not made available to either Mr. Burton or the investigator in his Human Resources investigation, although it was completed in late January, before the February 7 completion of the investigative report and February 16 meeting of the Investigative Review Committee.

The Investigative Review Committee found no probable cause to sustain any violations of law or school board policies against Mr. Burton.

Lawsuit alleges that Cowles shredded school district documents

The lawsuit alleges that on February 27, Cowles and an unidentified woman were observed shredding documents in the School Board administrative building, then using a vacuum cleaner to eliminate the shreds. The complaint says, “To date, many of Mr. Burton’s public records requests remain unfulfilled.”

The lawsuit gives multiple examples of defamatory remarks made by Simon in her November letter to the School Board concerning Mr. Burton and claims that the remarks were made out of malice and that they have damaged his “standing and reputation in the community.”

The lawsuit claims that Simon and Cowles took actions that were intended to “induce a breach or disruption” of Mr. Burton’s contract with ACSB and that Simon took actions to have both Burtons terminated from their positions with ACSB. It also claims that Simon, Certain, and McNealy together “designed” Ms. Burton’s low evaluation to punish her for public disagreement.

Burtons seek damages, an apology, and costs

The lawsuit asks the Court to award the Burtons compensatory damages, require ACSB to make a public retraction and apology, and award the Burtons attorneys’ fees and costs.

The Burtons are represented by Attorney Bryan Boukari, who sent a pre-suit notice letter to the School Board in February. At that time, Simon told us that her initial email “speaks for itself.” She continued, “Regardless of the outcome of the investigation we do know that we need to correct our internal systems associated with Camp Crystal… One of my top priorities has been to examine and improve all internal systems and policies throughout the district to protect taxpayer funds. We are already establishing increased oversight and accountability mechanisms to address the concerns that I shared in my initial email to the board.” 

  • It will suck if Cowles gets elected to the school board and they bring back Simple Simon.

  • Over the last couple of years i have come to the conclusion that the Alaucha County School Board is out of control they all need voted out of office and start over

  • Does not even deserve a comment.
    If you can’t understand what is going on here you are beyond my ability to communicate with,

  • I stand behind Scott and Holly Burton! They are amazing leaders in our school system! I have nothing but the utmost respect for both!

  • It’s election time, but now with a really nasty twist.

    It seems one can now use the Alachua Chronicle to publish a free personal attack on a candidate just before an election.

    Here’s how: have a lawyer write a story about a candidate, send it to the Chronicle just before the election and they will publish it.To make it better, you can even threaten to sue but you dont have to because the Chronicle will publish the story anyhow, as if had actually done so.

    Among journalists, thats called a “hit piece”, meaning it was published to hurt not inform.

    I have fought local corruption for decades, blown the whistle until out of breath and was hoping the Alachua Chronicle would become a real local corruption fighter, disclosing dirty deals made with public funds, protecting whisleblowers who risk all to reveal what their bosses want to hide, and documenting years of misspending in our city halls and school board.

    And, for a while, the Chronicle did that. They seemed to be wrapped in the virtue of factual investigative reportage of bad government hereabouts. Some said the Chronicle had a bias, but I defended it because the only bias was persistant excoriation of misuse and mispending of government funds, by elected officials and their appointees.

    Every town needs an honest, hard hitting public voice, not a weak version of someone’s electoral revenge. The shame of this story belongs to the Chronicle, not the candidate.

  • Dear Editor,

    I am going to tell you a  story about someone that offended me. I want you to print the allegations.  So I  hired a lawer to write  them on paper in the form of a kinda lawsuit.  If I send you a copy will you please publish the allegations against these people who offended me?

    I dont believe you would do that, but……

    I wrote to you (copy below) indicating that you published a number of allegations against local folks and said that their allegations were part of a lawsuit.

    I checked with the Clerk of the Court to see the “lawsuit” because the allegations you printed were damaging and lawsuits are public but they cant find it.  But  said you had evidence that there was an actual  lawsuit, not just a bunch of allegations written by a lawyer.  
    {“The lawsuit was filed on August 11. I have seen the E-file receipt.”}

    I know you want the Alachua Chronicle to be believable, so would you kindly show your readers like me the lawsuit you said you saw?

    Here’s a deal to make it right: If you have a copy of the “lawsuit” ( filed before your story) I will apologize publicly to the Alachua Chronicle, no problem, because I actually fought to protect free speech ..but not free lies, even though some folks these days no longer care.  If its not real,  then you do the same. I make mistakes and folks correct me  – so feel free to do so if I am mistaken.

    Thanks for considering this request.

    Mark

    ——————————————————————————————–

    “It’s election time, but now with a really nasty twist.

    It seems one can now use the Alachua Chronicle to publish a free personal attack on a candidate just before an election.

    Here’s how: have a lawyer write a story about a candidate, send it to the Chronicle just before the election and they will publish it.To make it better, you can even threaten to sue but you dont have to because the Chronicle will publish the story anyhow, as if had actually done so.

    Among journalists, thats called a “hit piece”, meaning it was published to hurt not inform.

    I have fought local corruption for decades, blown the whistle until out of breath and was hoping the Alachua Chronicle would become a real local corruption fighter, disclosing dirty deals made with public funds, protecting whisleblowers who risk all to reveal what their bosses want to hide, and documenting years of misspending in our city halls and school board.

    And, for a while, the Chronicle did that. They seemed to be wrapped in the virtue of factual investigative reportage of bad government hereabouts. Some said the Chronicle had a bias, but I defended it because the only bias was persistant excoriation of misuse and mispending of government funds, by elected officials and their appointees.

    Every town needs an honest, hard hitting public voice, not a weak version of someone’s electoral revenge. The shame of this story belongs to the Chronicle, not the candidate.”

    • You’ve already posted this! You need to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes or you work for the sun, maybe both

  • Both parties need to be placed immediately on administrative leave pending dismissal as hostile employees. Their actions will cost every taxpayer money. If they are unhappy with their school job and benefits, they are free to pursue other employment. I do not want to pay lawyers to defend our school board from frivolous petty 15k lawsuits from senior management. Lawyers costs to the taxpayer will exceed 15k.
    Focus on improving Shell elementary (which performs poorly) and not shutting down camp crystal mid-summer.
    In fact, both litigants should be terminated for cause. We can upgrade those positions with more qualified and motivated employees.
    The school board needs to remove the politics and focus on the mission of educating our kids.

    • Either you are involved or you’ve never been a target affecting your reputation for

  • The destruction by Carlee to the leadership of ACS was felt immediately and in a negative way. There is enough data in print to verify the destruction. Lawsuits like this tend to give those steam rolled a voice. Employees of ACS have been scared to speak up. Why? Litigation in this situation is a form of a check and balance and potentially will give justice to those already railroaded.

    The performance of our schools suffered under the ACSB that appointed Carlee. School Board members still supportive of Carlee after having the opportunity to see the data of destruction academically and the diminishing morale of ACS employees should not be reelected. We pay high property taxes; pass tax increases and we get worse results and excuses.

    ACS built a new building at Metcalfe only to hear Tina Certain at a board meeting talking about Metcalfe is only at 70% capacity. Why did you build a new building at Metcalfe when a school didn’t need the extra SF? Renovate existing and if somehow that shorts the students and you must build new, then demo the parts of the buildings that were not worth renovating. Demo buildings not worth renovating is cheaper because the facility has less overhead cost and reduce the cost of a child by reducing busing. Not to mention the opportunity cost lost by the kids dealing with long bus trips. The leadership here cannot see pass their nose.

    I want fair pay for teachers, and I want our children in nice buildings, but money is not going to close the gap and bring equal academic outcomes.

    If ACSB keeps showing incompetence the many citizens of this county will eventually turn off the spigot by voting against funding, moving, or getting their area incorporated into a different county.

    There is another solution as citizens lets elect people to all our political positions that put an emphasis on common sense instead of some thought experiments that always needs more money and time. As Americans we spend more money per student than any nation in the world. Even when we adjust for GDP there are only a few outliers that spend more. However as many have recently learned, we deserve the government we have elected.

    • Your right simon leaving was felt immediately, but in a good way you must be friends

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