December 4, 2013

Winthrop schools’ clerk charges discrimination, retaliation

Human Rights panel to hold hearing Dec. 16.

By Betty Adams badams@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

WINTHROP — A 17-year payroll/human resources clerk for of the Winthrop schools, whose contract was not renewed in June 2012, claims she was a victim of both discrimination and retaliation in the workplace.

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

A Maine Human Rights Commission investigator has recommended the commission support Sims’ charges that she was a victim of discrimination and of retaliation in violation of the Whistleblowers Protection Act.

The school district, Alternative Organizational Structure 97, 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 at 19 Union St. 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 work with 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.”

Dion’s report said Sims routinely had coworkers proofread her correspondence before sending it out and had not been criticized about her English skills previously.

Rosenthal recommended Sims take a college business writing class; however, Sims maintained she had responsibilities at home and was unable to do so in the evenings.

“(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. “The instantaneous timing and nature of the criticism is striking.”

Dion said the emails from Sims “are not perfectly written but are professional, readable, appropriate as to content and understandable.”

Dion said Rosenthal’s decision to put Sims on probation “was unwarranted and appears to have been caused, at least in part, by Ms. Sims’ race/color/national origin.” Dion also said that while Sims had “other performance issues that may have played a role in (the district’s) decision to put her on probation in December 2011 and to not renew her contract in June 2012, it is more likely than not that (Rosenthal’s) actions were motivated — at least in part — by Ms. Sims’ national origin.”

With regard to the other charge, 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.

He said Sims came to Maine in 1982.

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

In an opinion that upheld the nonrenewal, 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 — 621-5631

badams@centralmaine.comTwitter: @betadams
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