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Suit finally hits school district

Two former South Whidbey School District administrators filed a civil complaint in federal court in Seattle Friday against the district and the South Whidbey Board of Education.

Former superintendent Martin Laster and former assistant superintendent Dan Blanton, along with former district administrative assistant Susan Nerison, are seeking restitution from current board members and two former board members over incidents they claim occurred while the three worked in the South Whidbey district. The three resigned overnight last March in a move that caught the district by surprise.

Named in the complaint are school board directors Helen Price Johnson, Jim Adsley, Bob Riggs, Greg Gilles and Rich Parker, as well as former directors Ray Gabelein and Barbara Schneeman.

Seattle attorney Judith Lonnquist represents Laster, Blanton and Nerison.

According to the complaint filed by the firm, the current and former school board members are being sued both as board members and as individuals.

The document claims the district and the board violated their rights to free speech, to due process, of property rights, of equal protection, and the right to petition the government. The claimants also charge that they were subject to defamation, constructive discharge, and wrongful withholding of wages.

South Whidbey Superintendent Bob Brown was served notice of the lawsuit Monday.

Brown said board called an executive session following a workshop that afternoon to discuss the lawsuit. He said he and members of the board were not surprised by the lawsuit; hey had been expecting it because since a notice of tort was served on the district in October.

The district faxed its official response to lawsuit to The South Whidbey Record Tuesday morning.

“The three individuals [Laster, Blanton and Nerison], who simultaneously and in concert abandoned their jobs when they cleaned out their offices during the night and disappeared in March of last year, claim that they were forced to leave because the school board gave no other choice but to do so. The district adamantly denies this is true... It is unfortunate that these three former employees are seeking substantial amounts of money from the District for no valid reason when they know full well that the District can ill afford it.”

The district has referred the suit to Washington Schools Risk Management Pool. An attorney from that office will defend the district in the case.

Plaintiffs allege poor board behavior

Some of the details in the 16-page complaint document relate to conversations and comments made by board members to one another, to the plaintiffs and members of the public, and to allegedly libelous comments in e-mails.

The complaint alleges that board members, acting in collusion with school principals, began to “foment district and divisiveness between the plaintiffs and district staff.”

By mid March in 2004, the complaint alleges, the administrators’ work environment was hostile. They charge that school board members escalated this to the point at which the plaintiffs experienced life-threatening health problems. Laster, Blanton and Nerison resigned on March 16, 2004, citing “constructive discharge” as the reason.

The complaint further alleges that members of the school board exploited an independent financial audit in 2003 to discredit and undermine the plaintiffs. The audit occurred after the district miscalculated its fund balance by about $360,000.

Prior to his resignation, Laster informed the board he would leave the district at the end of his contract in June 2005, or “sooner if another position became available.”

The plaintiffs are asking for a jury trial and seeking an unspecified monetary damage. They are asking for compensatory damages for emotion distress and humiliation, double damages under the Revised Code of Washington, and reasonable attorney’s fees

In October 2004, plaintiff’s attorney Judith Lonnquist filed a claim as notice of tort on the former administrators’ behalf asking for $2.75 million in damages.

In a telephone interview this week, Lonnquist said it is common practice to not specify a dollar amount when filing a complaint in Washington courts.

Laster is now assistant superintendent in Alaska and Blanton is employed as a principal in a school district in Anchorage. Nersion works for the Edmonds School District.

Who pays?

The South Whidbey School District is a member of Washington Schools Risk Management Pool which provides property and liability insurance coverage to a number of school districts in the state. According to Bob Brown, superintendent of South Whidbey School District the case will be referred risk management, which will provide legal counsel. Cost to the district of the liability and property coverage is about $180,000 per year.

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