San Juan Unified faces $17 million in claims over harassment allegations

12/16/2013 12:00 AM

12/15/2013 11:26 PM

Ten women have filed $17 million in claims with the San Juan Unified School District alleging that Superintendent Glynn Thompson created a hostile workplace, adding financial pressure to a large suburban school district that has gone seven months without a permanent leader.

The past and present employees said they were subject to Thompson’s unprovoked, angry and violent outbursts, according to tort claims obtained by The Sacramento Bee through the Public Records Act. One former administrator said she was threatened with demotion to custodian after she complained about Thompson’s behavior, while another said Thompson described her as a “liar” and “mentally unstable” to San Juan cabinet members.

Thompson has been on paid leave since mid-May, leaving a revolving door of interim managers to run the nearly 47,000-student district that stretches from Campus Commons to the northeast county line. One labor leader recently complained that a leadership vacuum has delayed contract negotiations after trustees waited on an investigation that took months longer than expected. Meanwhile, the district has spent $330,000 to pay for the inquiry and provide Thompson his full salary and benefits while on leave.

It has been a difficult turn for the area’s third largest K-12 district, otherwise known for positive accomplishments such as the prestigious International Baccalaureate program at Mira Loma High School that draws students from throughout the region and the district’s dedication to music programs.

San Juan trustees held a closed-door meeting Dec. 9 to discuss how to proceed, and they are scheduled to resume the discussion Thursday morning.

Many of the women who filed the tort claims have decades of education experience in positions of special trust. A tort claim is a required preamble to a lawsuit alleging defamation and emotional distress. Earlier this year, a number of women also filed claims with the state Fair Employment and Housing Council, a move that preserved their right to sue on other grounds.

Among the claims:

•  Cathy Allen, a former top San Juan administrator, was removed from the cabinet, stripped of key responsibilities and ultimately threatened with assignment as a custodian after she complained. She left San Juan in April and works in another district. She seeks $637,300 in damages.
•  Yvonne Wright, the only African American who held a districtwide job at San Juan, was director of elementary campuses until she was demoted to elementary school principal. When she challenged the demotion as racially motivated, Thompson initially agreed to give her preference for other districtwide jobs. But she said Thompson instead blocked her from transferring and publicly ostracized her, telling other administrators that Wright was “done with the district.” Her claim seeks $3.4 million.
•  Tracy Tomasky, a former district administrator who served nine years as its director of early childhood education and was a president of the San Juan Administrators Association, complained to the school board about Thompson but trustees took no substantive action. She said Thompson subsequently defamed her by telling members of the district cabinet that she was “a liar ... incompetent and mentally unstable.” Tomasky’s claim seeks $1.9 million, including $850,000 for emotional distress.
•  Stacy Spector, former president of the San Juan Administrators Association and former director of professional development and curriculum innovation, is seeking $3.4 million, half of which is for emotional distress. She points to blowback she received after approaching board member Larry Masuoka on behalf of association members with complaints about Thompson. “No substantive corrective action was taken,” the claim says. “Instead, at Thompson’s behest, Spector was retaliated against, stripped of staff, given increased duties ... and ultimately threatened” with termination. Spector left the district at the end of May.

Another four women in non-management roles filed tort claims, including two who were Thompson’s administrative assistants. So did two assistant superintendents, one in human resources and one in elementary education.

“It’s an extraordinary situation, when you see the decision-makers being the ones subjected to this kind of treatment,” said Robert Biegler, attorney for the women.

In their Dec. 9 meeting, board members examined an investigation of the case by Van Dermyden Maddux Law Corp., for which the district has paid $177,600 for nearly seven months of work.

Through a district spokesman, Thompson last week declined to comment until the board resolves the matter.

In a May interview with The Sacramento Bee, Thompson said he was focused on reducing central office administrators and emphasizing more hands-on classroom involvement by school principals. He was known for delivering tough criticism to get what he wanted.

“We are, in education, a culture of ‘nice,’ ” Thompson said at the time. “If you give people feedback on their performance and it’s not what they want to hear, often it’s about them as a person.”

Since Thompson went on leave, three people have served as interim superintendent in his place. At the public opening of the Dec. 9 closed-door session, a labor leader worried about the ongoing uncertainty within the district.

“We are waiting to hear from the board on what’s going to happen,” said Ed Gibson of California School Employees Association San Juan Chapter 127. “If you can give us some kind of idea today … six months? Another year? Two weeks?”

Gibson said later negotiations have gone nowhere for the past month on a new three-year contract for some 1,700 workers that include secretaries, custodians and food service workers. “No one seems to want to make a decision” on even basic contract language, he said.

Trent Allen, district spokesman, called the superintendent situation “difficult for everyone involved.”

“Fortunately, we have been able to continue to do some of the important work. We have been able to focus on Common Core and the Local Control Funding Formula,” referring to major curriculum and financing overhauls affecting schools statewide this year.

“It says a lot about our district that we can have such a serious situation and still maintain our focus on improving teaching and learning for our students,” he added.

Board member Masuoka, who is named in the 10 tort claims as a respondent along with Thompson and the district, recused himself from the Dec. 9 meeting on the advice of counsel. He also recused himself from the board’s mid-May vote to place Thompson on administrative leave. He said last week that he is eager to have more details of the episode emerge publicly.

“I’m not going to comment on any conversations or any interactions that relate directly to this investigation,” Masuoka said.

In her May 2 complaint to the state fair employment council, Spector included an email she received from Masuoka that she interpreted to be a “threat to chill the complaint against the superintendent.”

The parable Masuoka sent to her personal email was about a bird in a pile of cow dung.

“When you’re in deep s---, it’s best to keep your mouth shut!” the closing line said.

Asked about the message, Masuoka said he did not send the message from his district account.

“I’m going to say that was a communication that was not related to the superintendent,” said Masuoka, who served as board president for most of 2013.

“Stacy and I had far-ranging conversations outside the school district about things related to education ... and general philosophy and life in general. A lot of those conversations had nothing to do with the superintendent. They typically had everything to do with the human condition.”

Three of the tort claims also name board member Pam Costa, whom the employees say was approached about the problem but took “no corrective action,” according to the filings.

Costa said in an email that she could not comment on the specifics of the case before it concludes.

“This is a matter of great importance to our community and to the board of education,” she wrote, “which is why we have engaged in a very exhaustive and detailed investigation of the allegations raised.”

Costa added, “I stand by my actions in this matter and am confident that when the results of the investigation are shared, our community will be able to see the full story with regard to the allegations made against me.”

The issue came to light after one of the women approached board member Greg Paulo, who agreed to meet with her.

“She said it was serious,” he said Sunday. “I met with her, and I felt that it was my responsibility to make sure the entire board was aware of it.”

Paulo said he went first to the district’s in-house legal counsel. Soon afterward, at a board meeting, the trustees authorized an investigation.

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