Four N.Y. Teachers Sue Walts, Allege Discrimination

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 15, 2006

Prince William County School Superintendent Steven L. Walts has been sued in federal court by four teachers from his previous school district in New York who allege that he discriminated against them because of their age and pressured them to retire to cut costs.

In two lawsuits filed last week in U.S. District Court in Rochester, N.Y., the teachers said that when Walts oversaw the Greece Central School District, he and his top aides devised evaluations of older teachers that were more rigorous than those for newer staff members. The reviews were often false or exaggerated, creating an intolerable atmosphere and violating the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the New York State Human Rights Law, according to the lawsuits.

Filed on Tuesday and Friday, the lawsuits name Walts, various members of his former administration and the Greece Central School District as defendants. The lawsuits are the latest step in a steadily unraveling dispute between Walts and former and current employees of the suburban Rochester school system, which he led for seven years before taking the helm in Prince William in July.

Over the summer, the four teachers who sued -- along with a fifth -- won rulings by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which determined that Walts's administration discriminated against them based on their age or disability. The fifth teacher has not sued yet because the EEOC found her case so compelling that it was referred to the Justice Department, which is deciding whether it will bring a lawsuit on her behalf.

The EEOC determinations are extremely rare. The agency finds "reasonable cause" that a violation occurred against an employee in only 5 percent of all the cases it investigates.

Walts was unavailable for comment Friday, said Keith Imon, Prince William's associate superintendent for communications and technology services. Imon held a similar job in the Greece school district. In previous interviews, Walts denied that he discriminated against anyone and said he was not directly involved in the teachers' evaluations.

"I held people accountable," he said in December. "In doing that, sometimes there are people who may or may not agree. When you look at the overall picture about what went on in that school division, you'll see continuous improvement over the course of the time I was there. I certainly believe in treating all employees fairly. I would never intentionally discriminate against anyone."

As allegations of wrongdoing during Walts's tenure in Greece have surfaced, community members locally and in New York have begun questioning the vetting procedures of the Prince William School Board, whose members said they were unaware during their superintendent search that more than a dozen teachers in Greece had filed EEOC charges during Walts's tenure.

Greece teachers union and community members said they could have easily tipped off Prince William School Board members to the fact that so many EEOC charges had been filed -- had the search been more public. From 2003 to 2004, 17 employees filed EEOC charges against the Greece school system, said Fred Aten, a Greece school system attorney.

Prince William School Board members defended their search, saying the accusations against Walts bear no relevance to his job in Virginia.

"We did an extensive background check, and he was forthcoming in his statements to us," said School Board Chairman Lucy S. Beauchamp (At Large). "I think he hurts for those people in Greece. From the outside looking in, I feel he did a tremendous job there."

In the lawsuit filed Tuesday, three former Greece teachers -- Evelyn Krane, Carole Giordano and Cheryl Livoti -- are seeking an unspecified amount of damages, back pay and any other benefits or salary increases they would have accrued had they not been subject to the alleged harassment, according to the lawsuit.

Walts -- along with then-Assistant Superintendent Margaret Keller-Cogan and English language arts director Kathleen Pagano-Fuller -- decided to "embark on a discriminatory course of conduct" to evaluate the teachers in 2002 and 2003, according to the lawsuit. Their goal was to "subject them to humiliation and degradation in the eyes of their peers and colleagues."

The suit also states that the school district's administrators created a "well-orchestrated campaign" to discredit the teachers because they were among the highest paid in the district and doing so would force them out, "saving the District substantial costs."

"These are serious complaints," said Richard A. Dollinger, the attorney representing the three teachers who was a New York state senator for 10 years. "They were thoroughly investigated by the EEOC over the course of a year and a half. These are cases that involved questions of evaluation and performance in the classroom and whether the district uniformly applied its observation evaluation rules."

In the lawsuit filed Friday, Mary T. Donlon, who is still teaching in the Greece school system, is seeking $1.25 million in damages. Donlon, who is being represented by New York United Teachers, the largest union in the state, said the school system refused to hire her for summer school positions over younger and less qualified candidates and subjected her to "abusive" evaluation tactics.

Donlon alleges that she was treated so poorly that in March, she was not even notified during the night when the Greece Board of Education voted to bring disciplinary charges against her. When she showed up for work the next day at her elementary school, "she was removed from her classroom and from the building in a humiliating manner" by Keith Johnson, who at the time was the school system's assistant superintendent for human resources and is now serving in that same capacity in Prince William. Johnson was not named as a defendant in the suit.

"No other teachers brought up on disciplinary charges by the District have ever been treated in this manner, but were instead placed on disciplinary charges at the end of the school year so that their reassignments from their school buildings were not public," according to the lawsuit.

Johnson was not at work late Friday afternoon and could not be reached for comment.

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