December 16, 2013

Human Rights Commission: Winthrop woman subjected to illegal discrimination

The Maine Human Rights Commission concluded Monday that a former payroll and benefits clerk for AOS 97 was also a victim of retaliation.

By Betty Adams badams@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA – The Maine Human Rights Commission voted 3-1 Monday to find reasonable grounds to believe that a former payroll and benefits clerk in the Winthrop school system was subjected to illegal workplace discrimination and retaliation.

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Discrimination hearing: AOS 97 Superintendent Gary Rosenthal watches the Maine Human Rights Commission Monday during a hearing in Augusta. The commission voted 3-1 Monday to find reasonable grounds to believe that a former payroll and benefits clerk in the Winthrop school system was subjected to illegal workplace discrimination and retaliation. Jennifer Ma Sims, 55, of East Winthrop, had worked for the schools for 11 years when her contract was not renewed by Alternative Organizational Structure 97 in June 2012.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

click image to enlarge

DISCRIMINATION HEARING: Jennifer Ma Sims, 55, of East Winthrop, worked for the Winthrop schools for 11 years when her contract was not renewed by AOS 97 in June 2012.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

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Jennifer Ma Sims, 55, of East Winthrop, had worked for the schools for 11 years when her contract was not renewed by Alternative Organizational Structure 97, western Kennebec County Schools, in June 2012. She had worked for the town of Winthrop since 1995 before transferring to the school department.

The commission voted to support Sims’ claims that she was a victim of discrimination because of her race, ancestry and national origin, and a victim of retaliation in violation of the Whistleblower’s Protection Act when her contract was not renewed three weeks after she gave a school board member information about what she alleged was the use of the wrong fund to pay the food services director.

AOS 97 told the commission investigator that Sims’ issues included problems with written English and with performing other duties.

The case now moves into a conciliation phase.

Commission findings are not law but may become grounds for lawsuits.

The commission investigator’s report does not identify anyone other than the district and Sims. However, it is clear from the dates in the report that Superintendent Gary Rosenthal is the superintendent who questioned Sims’ writing ability and was the superintendent when her contract was not renewed.

Sims’ attorney, Peter Bickerman, told commissioners, “This superintendent came on board in September 2011, and suddenly every accounting problem became Ms. Sims’ fault.” Bickerman also said the superintendent “was unduly offended by her imperfect English.” Sims is originally from Taiwan, and English is not her first language.

He encouraged commissioners to conclude that Sims was not rehired for reasons that violate the Maine Human Rights Act.

Commissioner A. Mavourneen Thompson, who was the lone vote against supporting Sims’ claims, asked Bickerman why the school system offered to pay for an English writing course for Sims if there was animosity toward her based on her ethnicity.

Bickerman said it was an offer Sims could not accept because of her responsibilities at home. “It gave the appearance of being helpful but it really wasn’t,” he said.

Attorney Elek Miller, who represented the school district, asked the commission to reject its investigator’s recommendation and clear the school district.

“This is a case where the employer did things right,” Miller said on Monday. “Five different supervisors, including four different superintendents, over eight years documenting the same performance and professionalism issues.”

Miller said shortly after Rosenthal — whom the attorneys referred to as “Superintendent 3” in keeping with the commission’s privacy policy — joined the district, Rosenthal found problems with communications being sent in-house by Sims and addressed it with her.

“Race and national origin had nothing to do with that,” Miller said. “By failing to address it, superintendent wouldn’t be doing his job.”

Rosenthal accompanied Miller at the hearing, but refused comment afterward. Miller said the district stands by its position that it acted correctly. “We disagree with the commission’s decision and don’t feel they gave enough consideration to the history,” he said.

He added, “The most important thing to the district is being fair to folks.”

Miller said the next move is up to Sims and her attorney. “At this point we wait to hear from the other side and see what they want to do,” Miller said.

Sims did not address the commissioners at the hearing.

“It was a positive vote for us,” Bickerman said afterward. He also said there had been some informal efforts to negotiate a settlement prior to the hearing, and he expected conciliation efforts to be attempted with the commission’s help.

He said if the case developed into a lawsuit and Sims won, she could seek to recover back wages as well as projected wages. Her former salary was not available Monday.

Sims is employed elsewhere now and said she is very happy in her new job.

Among the items on the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting of the Winthrop Board of Education is the resignation of school nutrition director and budget coordinator Cherie Merrill.

Merrill also was payroll and benefits coordinator for AOS 97, the post formerly held by Sims.

In October 2012, the school board of AOS 97 voted 6-0 to hire Merrill as financial control officer. At the time, Rosenthal said she would work three days in that job, which encompassed payroll, budget and human resources, and two days as Winthrop school nutrition director.

Betty Adams — 621-5631 badams@centralmaine.com Twitter: @betadams

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