December 5, 2013

Investigator backs Maine clerk’s claim of retaliation, discrimination

The 17-year employee of the Winthrop school system says the superintendent was demeaning to her.

By BETTY ADAMS Kennebec Journal

WINTHROP — A Maine Human Rights Commission investigator has found merit to claims by a veteran payroll/human resources clerk for Winthrop schools who contends she was a victim of discrimination and retaliation in the workplace when her contract was not renewed in June 2012.

An investigator says the discrimination coincided with Superintendent Gary Rosenthal’s starting work.

Winthrop schools photo

Jennifer Ma Sims, of East Winthrop, a 17-year employee who is originally from Taiwan, charges that she was a victim of discrimination because of her race, ancestry and national origin and of retaliation for giving a School Board member information about what she alleges was the use of the wrong fund to pay the food services director.

The investigator has recommended the commission support Sims’ charges. The retaliation claim is based on provisions of the Whistleblowers Protection Act.

The school district disagrees with the recommended findings, and attorney Elek Miller said he will present the school district’s objections at the Dec. 16 commission hearing at its offices in Augusta.

“We really couldn’t disagree more with the report that we’ve received,” Miller said on Wednesday. “The report omits some very significant facts. He also said he wanted to emphasize that “nothing is more important to the district than treating people fairly.”

According to a report by commission investigator Michele Dion, Sims maintains that the discrimination began Sept. 15, 2011, and coincided with Superintendent Gary Rosenthal starting to work for the district. Rosenthal referred all questions to Miller.

“Gary Rosenthal within a week or so put Ms. Sims on probation for using bad grammar in an email,” Sims’ attorney, Peter Bickerman, said on Wednesday. “We didn’t think that writing in perfect English was a part of her job. These were emails that were going internally; they weren’t official correspondence with the outside world.” Rosenthal recommended Sims take a college business writing class.

“(Rosenthal’s) demeaning attitude toward Ms. Sims and her English skills began immediately when he started working with her and continued through the end of her employment there,” Dion wrote.

Dion said that on May 10, 2012, Sims provided information to a School Board member about her allegation that salary funds used to pay the food service director should have been charged to the food service fund.

On Wednesday, Bickerman said, “It appeared the salary was billed to the wrong revenue stream, and that’s what Ms. Sims was trying to point out.” He said accounts funded by federal money have to be used for specified purposes. “We believe there was retaliation because Ms. Sims reported certain things she believed were accounting irregularities,” Bickerman said.

Dion concluded in her report, “It is possible that the superintendent felt that Ms. Sims’ performance issues were unredeemable, but the timing of the decision is notable. The fact that his decision not to renew the contract of a 17-year employee came only three weeks after her report to the school board is unavoidable.”

Sims, 55, now works 32 hours a week in a patient registration job, “a position that doesn’t pay as much as she was being paid,” Bickerman said.

A decade ago, after Rosenthal’s contract as principal at Cambridge South Dorchester High School was not renewed after two years, he appealed to the Maryland State Board of Education, asking them to find that the decision “was arbitrary, unreasonable and capricious.”

In an opinion that upheld the decision, the state board listed “factual background” items relating to Rosenthal’s performance. Under one heading that he “exercised poor judgment” is a reference that Rosenthal “emailed a joke that had racist overtones.”

Rosenthal also charged that he was a victim of illegal discrimination based on ethnicity, but the state board said that claim was raised improperly.

Betty Adams can be contacted at 621-5631 or at:

badams@centralmaine.com

Twitter: @betadams

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