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Lee school board member censured amid whistleblower investigation

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Posted at 6:17 PM, May 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-12 06:18:07-04

LEE COUNTY, Fla. — There's a call for a Lee County School Board member to resign after a majority vote to censure a board member in the middle of a whistleblower investigation.

In a board meeting on Tuesday night, five of the seven board members went on the record to say they disapproved of something board member Chris Patricca did.

School board member Melisa Giovannelli confirms that a school board employee filed a whistleblower complaint against Patricca on Monday. What was filed in the complaint is still a mystery.

"I think we need to address the complaint that was given to us," Giovannelli said during Tuesday night's meeting.

Giovannelli put forward a motion to launch an investigation into the whistleblower complaint.

In a one-on-one interview with Fox 4's Kaitlin Knapp, Giovannelli gave some context of what's in the complaint.

"It actually stems back from a while ago, so I’m trying to understand it myself truthfully," she said.

She did say the board employee filed the complaint under whistleblower status. Under Florida law, it means the employee is protected from retaliation. Giovannelli says the censure is for protection.

"This is about an employee that needs to feel safe and to be able to just work and so I take it very seriously," she explained.

This is not the first time Patricca has faced scrutiny. Back in October 2021, the Lee County School Board asked the Governor's Office to investigate Patricca for "abuse of power." It came one month after the board and some community members took issue with what she said during an Estero community meeting about Guatemalan students.

"The biggest challenge that those principals are facing is getting them out of the bathroom because they’ve never seen running water before," Patricca said back in 2021.

She later apologized for that comment.

Patricca provided Fox 4 a statement to address the allegations and censure.

The burden of leadership, especially today, is to be accused of things that are not true. I welcome an investigation because I have done nothing wrong and I look forward to refocusing our work on student achievement, supporting our teachers and staff and providing the best educational system for the people of Lee County.

During Tuesday night's meeting, she did make a comment following the approval of the investigation.

"And this is a joke. This is not a real amendment, but may I amend the motion to include demanding an apology when the investigation shows that I’ve done nothing wrong," Patricca said during Tuesday night's meeting.

The comment came about 20 minutes after Giovannelli asked Patricca to give up her seat.

"We could save the taxpayers money by not investigating if Ms. Patricca would like to resign," Giovannelli said.

Giovannelli would only say she asked for Patricca's resignation because she says she wants to stop what is happening. By that, she said she means Patricca's actions surrounding the employee's safety have forced an investigation.

Board member Gwynetta Gittens gave Fox 4 a statement regarding the situation. She said,

“We need to as a board move forward and be able to work more in unity and the reason I voted especially for the censure was — I don’t want to see the same history being repeated and we have a responsibility to protect our employees from any harm or retaliation. I felt that this move would at least stop any potential for retaliation. And the overall big picture is some of the systemic issues that we have as a board need to be resolved so that we can move forward as function like the community that elected us expects us to do.”