A veteran preschool teacher is suing the city of South Portland in Cumberland County Superior Court for allegedly misclassifying her job as temporary and denying her paid benefits for 14 years.

Carol Bartlett claims in a lawsuit filed June 14 that the city flouted its personnel policies by keeping her job status as temporary seasonal from 1993 to 2006, although she worked year round at the Parks and Recreation Department’s preschool.

City personnel policy defines temporary employment as a job held for six months or less. Three-month extensions may be granted by the city manager.

Bartlett is seeking three times the amount she is owed for back benefits in damages. The lawsuit does not specify an amount.

Paul Boots, Bartlett’s attorney, did not respond to requests for comment.

“I am not a person who sues,” said Bartlett, a 54-year-old South Portland resident who continues to teach preschoolers at the Community Center.

“I’ve only met with an attorney one other time in my life – to draw up a family will. But someone has to be held accountable for what the city was doing,” she said.

City Attorney Mary Kahl said Monday that Maine statute does not permit a worker to seek triple damages for back benefits – only for back wages.

In the city’s July 5 written response to the lawsuit, Kahl argues that the city has no obligation to pay back benefits. “I’m not aware of case law that entitles a person to back benefits,” Kahl said.

Bartlett said the primary reason she is pursuing the case is an ethical one, after dedicating so many years of service to the city.

Bartlett says she loves her job readying the city’s children for kindergarten and has never wanted to put that at risk.

She said she was reluctant over the years to do more than complain to personnel because she did not want to sour her relationship with the parents who use the preschool.

The lawsuit contends that Bartlett has worked at least 28 hours per week year round.

In September 2006, Bartlett’s job was reclassified from part-time temporary to part-time permanent with benefits, after the city reviewed the hours the preschool teachers work, Kahl said. The city’s three other preschool teachers were also redesignated at the same time.

But, Kahl said, the reclassification should not be viewed as an admission that the city had made a mistake. She noted that a worker’s duties and hours may evolve over time and require periodic review.

In 2007, yearly benefits for a part-time permanent city employee working 28 hours per week are worth $8,750 with health insurance. Without health benefits, the amount is $3,623.

These benefits are calculated for a worker earning $13.28 an hour, the mid-level range for a preschool teacher, according to the city Finance Department.

But Bartlett says that her wages have not reached the mid-level range for preschool workers.

Kahl said the city’s four preschool teachers originally were considered temporary seasonal workers, because South Portland’s preschool program is nine months long and follows the regular school year.

The city also offers a summer program called Kinder Camp for the same age group at the preschool. Bartlett teaches at both programs.

Kahl said Bartlett’s work at Kinder Camp was viewed as an additional job.

Bartlett said she always worked year round, but the city was reluctant to recognize that.

“Starting in about 2000, I pursued the issue repeatedly with personnel and repeatedly was told nothing was going to change and there was no point in pursuing it,” Bartlett said.

In August 2006, Bartlett said, Human Resources Director Brian Smith – who has since resigned – reviewed her work history and agreed to upgrade her job classification to part-time permanent.

“He did some calculations going back to 2000, and it was clear that I had been classified incorrectly and the city just chose to ignore it,” said Bartlett.

Smith, who is now the Human Resources director in Scarborough, did not return calls for comment.

Bartlett’s upgrade to part-time permanent took effect in September 2006, granting her paid vacation time, paid sick days and access to health insurance and retirement benefits.

According to the lawsuit, Bartlett then submitted a letter to the city on April 12, 2007, requesting “that she be paid the benefits due and owing to her… and the Defendant has refused.”

Mayor Claude Morgan recalled talking to City Manager Thaddeus Jankowski about Bartlett’s request for back benefits. Jankowski has since resigned, and was unavailable for comment.

“My understanding is that the former city manager had contacted outside labor counsel to discuss whether we were in a compromised situation or whether we were fulfilling conditions of legal due diligence,” Morgan said.

Morgan said Jankowski assured him that the city was acting appropriately.

Morgan, who has not spoken with Bartlett, said he is aware that she talked with other city councilors about her job concerns before the lawsuit was filed.

He noted that individual councilors are no longer talking to Bartlett about the case because of the lawsuit.

Morgan said the council’s role is to set tone and policy and that day-to-day operations are handled by the city manager. At the same time, Morgan said, he is “concerned we protect our city employees.”

“If there are endemic problems, the council relies on the city manager to bring those to our attention. The city manager in turn relies on our guidance to deal with that.”

Councilor Maxine Beecher said she could not comment on the Bartlett case since it was in litigation. But she also echoed Morgan’s comments on the council’s role in personnel matters.

“The bottom line is, we are policy makers,” Beecher said. “We hire staff to do the hiring and firing and caring for staff. We have the policies in place that we hope will protect our people.”

Carol Bartlett, who has worked as a pre-school teacher in South Portland for 14 years, said she was reluctant over the years to do more than complain to the city about being classified as a temporary worker because she did not want to sour her relationship with the parents who use the preschool.

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