Schools deny all lawsuit charges

The South Whidbey School District responded recently to a civil complaint filed in federal court in February against its board of directors. In response to the complaint filed by former administrative staff, an attorney for the district denies any wrong doing by board members or the district, and asks the court to dismiss the complaint.

The “answer,” was filed on March 7 in federal court in Seattle by the school district’s attorney Phillip Noble in response to a complaint brought by Martin Laster former superintendent and former assistant superintendent Dan Blanton, along with former district administrative assistant Susan Nerison. Named in that complaint, as defendants, 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, both as directors and individuals and the South Whidbey School district.

In the six-page document, filed on behalf of the district and board members, Noble refers to specific paragraphs in the complaint by number saying that the defendants deny events and facts that are alleged and specifically deny any allegations or implications of any wrongful, improper, illegal or inappropriate conduct on their part.

The document also states that the former administrators claims are not worthy of financial relief. The defendants’ claim the court lacks jurisdiction over the claims made by the plaintiffs and that the court lacks some jurisdiction over some of the plaintiffs.

Laster and the others claim 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. Seattle attorney Judith Lonnquist represents the three former employees who resigned in March 2003.

In its counter response, the district claims Laster and Blanton abandoned their positions, thereby breaching their contracts which released the district from further obligations. Nerison, Noble writes, voluntarily resigned and abandoned her job position as well. The answer also states because of “poor performance and failure to properly perform his duties, Laster would have been terminated or not had his contract renewed.”

In the complaint, Laster, Blanton and Nerison claim that the directors interfered with their performance by attempting to micromanage them, including making unnecessary work assignments and circumventing their authority and responsibility by directly contacting auditors, staff lawyers and key personnel. Further, the complaint states, former school board member Barb Schneeman asked a private individual to contact The South Whidbey Record about an ongoing confidential investigation and former board president Ray Gabelien demanded information the independent auditors had remain confidential until their investigation was complete. They also allege that director Bob Riggs told assistant superintendent Dan Blanton “the target on your back is almost is as large as the one on the superintendent’s back.”

The plaintiffs further allege that the board consistently “recreated” the past to match changing positions in financial, staffing planning and program areas including changing minuets of public meetings and surprising Laster with “newly created contract minutes before voting on it in open session.” The complaint further states that school principals employed by the district began to foment distrust and divisiveness between them and the staff.

They are asking for compensatory damages for emotional distress and humiliation, economic damages and reasonable attorney’s fees, expert witness fees costs and expenses.

The case now goes into the discovery process in which both sides gather supporting information to present to a judge who will make a determination about whether the case will go to trial.

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