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Secret file hid allegations against Hillsborough middle school principal

The leader of Farnell Middle disputes allegations he created a hostile workplace, and says he will return to teaching.
Farnell Middle School in Westchase, where principal Tim Binder is leaving his position after allegations that he created a hostile workplace.
Farnell Middle School in Westchase, where principal Tim Binder is leaving his position after allegations that he created a hostile workplace. [ HCPS ]
Published Dec. 16, 2021|Updated Dec. 17, 2021

A high-ranking Hillsborough County Public Schools supervisor kept a secret file that protected a principal from hostile workplace allegations at Farnell Middle School in Westchase, consultants reported this week.

The consultants, asked to review a prior investigation by the district’s Office of Professional Standards, said regional superintendent Marcos Murillo could be reprimanded or suspended. They said Tim Binder, the principal of Farnell, should be reprimanded and removed from his position.

Staff at Farnell learned this week that Binder, a 26-year employee who earns $108,000 a year, is stepping down. He will become a teacher, despite allegations that he used obscenities at school and, in some instances, made female employees feel uncomfortable with remarks about sex and relationships.

Tim Binder [Times (2009)]
Tim Binder [Times (2009)]

Chief of staff Michael McAuley said returning Binder to the classroom makes sense because he was successful as a teacher. He noted the allegations against him concerned his interaction with adults, not children, and were not severe enough to warrant firing. “I trust Tim to use good judgment in front of students,” McAuley said after remarking that “this is unfortunate all the way around.”

Related: Read the report from Morrison & Associates

The news was met with dismay by some Farnell employees, who said they believed Binder was railroaded with false, politically motivated allegations. Maria Gordon, a secretary, said Binder is “loved and respected by 90 percent of the faculty and staff.” Music teacher Alec Pearl called Binder “a great leader, educator and boss,” and that his removal “feels like a gross injustice, and won’t be taken sitting down.”

The consultant’s report was prepared by Morrison & Associates, a business support firm with a long relationship with the district, headed by former attorney Bob Morrison in partnership with labor attorney Robert Clayton. It follows a longer district report that was released in April, along with a letter that supported and praised Murillo.

Related: Tampa teens wanted their school to protect them. Instead, they say, it got worse.

The original investigation resulted from letters in January 2021 from four Black, female administrators who described sexist and racially biased conduct while they worked for Murillo.

The complaints by Tiatasha Brown, Colleen Carr, Dionne Davis and Jacqueline Enis varied. Some perceived Murillo to undermine them at their schools. One felt she was being steered to struggling, high-minority schools instead of the more successful schools in affluent communities.

The Morrison report suggested there might be “questionable use of supervisory influence in connection with staff promotional opportunities,” but did not substantiate the allegations of bias or unfair treatment.

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Its strongest focus was on Murillo’s response to a conflict between Enis and Binder, who was Enis’ direct supervisor at Farnell.

Marcos Murillo
Marcos Murillo [ Hillsborough County Public Schools ]

Enis said the two had problems from their very first meeting, when he told her stories about other administrators’ sexual escapades. By her description, Binder used the “f” word repeatedly. In his interview with the Morrison team, Binder said he did not consider that word to be vulgar language.

Enis said that, although Binder apologized for offending her, he also sent her friendly, after-hours texts that made her uncomfortable. And at times he would make jokes about a Hillsborough sheriff’s supervisor, saying the man was Enis’ “little boyfriend.”

Related: A rising Hillsborough school leader battles claims of gender, racial bias

Enis outlined her concerns in a memo in March 2019 to Murillo, who was Binder’s supervisor. It was Murillo’s job to investigate and take action, if necessary. But there is no record of any such action in Binder’s district Professional Standards file.

When Morrison and Clayton investigated, they were given access to Murillo’s “offline supervisors’ desk file” that contained Enis’ 2019 complaint and Binder’s response, in which he disputed many of her descriptions. The file also contained Murillo’s warning letter to Binder. If there were more problems, it said, “Immediate action will be taken ... that will impact your assignment.”

As it turned out, there were.

Binder’s district file shows that in July 2020, a School Board member got a letter from a teacher’s husband, saying his wife was getting an extraordinary number of texts and calls from Binder.

Separately, Hillsborough Sheriff’s Resource Deputy Kenneth Turner told his supervisor that one day he came upon Binder and the same female teacher in the school. He said their two vehicles were the only ones on the property. When he approached Binder’s office, he heard male and female voices, and a noise that “sounded like sex,” according to a district report.

Binder, who is married with children, has consistently denied having the extramarital relationship.

But Turner also spoke to school officials in response to another complaint from teacher Clarissa Lima, alleging unprofessional conduct. Turner told them he saw Binder in the cafeteria, touching the married teacher in an affectionate way.

There were discussions about Binder’s use of the word “babe.” Binder said it was a term of endearment.

There was friction between Binder and Turner, including a conversation over a walkie-talkie in which Binder allegedly called the deputy and his supervisor “liars.”

According to Morrison’s findings, Murillo knew about the walkie-talkie incident. He might have taken action, based on his warning letter to Binder in 2019. But, as that warning letter was not in the Professional Standards file, it was impossible to determine if Murillo had acted appropriately.

Enis, meanwhile, was left without closure concerning her situation with Binder. As a result, she said she felt isolated and disenfranchised.

After the district wrapped up its investigation, more witnesses came forward.

The deputy was interviewed. So was Lima, the teacher who had filed the complaint and was ultimately transferred to another school. Also interviewed was Lillie Johnson, an assistant principal who had worked for both Murillo and Binder, and felt Binder used their friendship to intimidate her.

The district’s April letter clearing Murillo noted that three of the four original complainants enjoyed promotions while or shortly after working with Murillo.

But in recent years, most of those involved have seen their careers stalled or derailed.

Brown went from a high school principal to a middle school principal. Carr went from a middle school to an “administrator on special assignment,” essentially in limbo. Davis went from an assistant principal to a job teaching third grade. Turner, the deputy, was reassigned to a school he did not request.

Michael McAuley, chief of staff [Times (2020)]
Michael McAuley, chief of staff [Times (2020)]

Murillo had been under consideration as chief of schools, one of the district’s top three jobs. He is now a regional superintendent for middle schools, a notch below his last job as chief of middle schools. According to McAuley, no further action will be taken against Murillo because he was already demoted — and because, in keeping an offline desk file, he was following what then was common district procedure.

McAuley said the administration is now looking for ways to maintain more complete records. But he said not all incidents rise to the level of “a full-blown investigation,” and he did not commit to putting all incidents and complaints in the Professional Standards files.

Related: At emotional Hillsborough schools meeting, calls for investigation into sexual harassment policies

“I can tell you that, as a result of numerous conversations over the last many months, we are in the process of rewriting our guidance for principals so that we don’t have these offline files,” he said. “If it’s something that is so egregious that it needs to be in the HR file, put it in the HR file.”

Binder, the latest employee to be affected by these complaints, has experienced some other rough spots over the years.

As an assistant principal at Davidsen Middle in 2000, he clashed with his principal, Rebecca Kaskeski. She accused Binder of threatening her and mishandling students who misbehaved. Binder did not admit these acts, and refused to sign Kaskeski’s letter of reprimand unless a higher-level supervisor was present.

The following year, a female teacher at Davidsen accused Binder of making a series of lewd remarks. He denied this as well.

Kaskeski went on to become a senior executive officer in the Professional Standards office.

Binder served at various schools, including Greco and Bartels Middle. He was an administrator on special assignment. For a while he ran Learey Technical, an adult trade school.

Former superintendent Jeff Eakins and his chief of schools tapped Binder to run Farnell in 2018, according to an account given by Murillo in the spring. Murillo said he set out to help Binder succeed in this assignment.

Binder could not be reached for comment. In an email Wednesday that circulated among Farnell staff, Binder maintained his innocence. He made reference to Morrison’s past bar complaints and suspensions, calling him “a twice disbarred attorney.” Morrison, although no longer practicing law, said, “I have never been disbarred.”

Binder told his colleagues he will “miss Farnell more than you know.” He assured them that if the allegations were true, he would have been fired.

“There’s so much more I could say,” he wrote. “I appreciate your friendship.”

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