Former teacher files formal complaint vs. Butte school district

2013-05-23T00:15:00Z Former teacher files formal complaint vs. Butte school districtBy Renata Birkenbuel of The Montana Standard Montana Standard

A former temporary teacher has filed a formal complaint with the Human Rights Bureau of the Montana Department of Labor and Industry against Butte School District No. 1.

Sherry M. Peck Carlson claims employment discrimination, age discrimination and nepotism in the district’s refusal to hire her on a permanent basis.

Carlson, who holds a master’s degree in special education and maintained a 4.0 grade point average, accuses the district of several slights in a point-by-point rebuttal to the district’s response to her formal complaint.

Carlson, 49, asserts that the district violated the Montana Human Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and district policy for several reasons, including “predominantly” hiring teachers who were younger and “less than 40 years of age,” teachers who were “less qualified” and teachers who were less experienced as part of an “employment hiring discrimination pattern with the numerous district hiring decisions from 2005 to 2012.”

“I don’t think that’s a hiring preference,” countered John Ries, board vice chairman. “I think if they go through the process, the interview, and have the degree, there’s no preference given in terms of hiring.”

However, Carlson adamantly maintains that on top of the above charges, the district tended to hire relatives of current employees, specifically “adult children of district parents, who are also district administration employees or district relatives.”

Her rebuttal reads: “These district hiring preferences and unethical and unlawful employment practices, which also involve personal and preferential district administration hiring treatment, constitute nepotism.”

Instead, Ries said it’s natural for teachers to cluster in families — and to continue the local family tradition of staying local and working local.

“I think you have families (in which) the children go into education and as a parent you’d feel proud that they’d do the same thing as you’d want to do,” said Ries. “I think you’d have to look at all school districts throughout the country to see how many teachers and their children have gone into education.

“We have hired people in their 30s and 40s and we have hired teachers right out of college of all different ages. I don’t know how the judge would (rule) on that.”

Superintendent Judy Jonart deferred to district attorney Pat Fleming, who said that the district never received a copy of Carlson’s rebuttal — and that he had to call the Human Rights Bureau to request one “sometime after May 1.”

Carlson’s rebuttal is dated Feb. 8, 2013. It’s important to note that the complaint is still in the investigative stages, stressed Marieke Beck, bureau chief of the Montana Human Rights Bureau.

As part of the process, it remains to be seen whether the complaint will be sent to a hearing, then to a five-member Montana Human Rights Commission panel — if there’s a “cause finding,” she said.

Fleming said that in the district’s original response to the initial complaint, the district “denies each and every charge put forward by Carlson.” The rebuttal, he said, took the district by surprise.

“We probably ultimately will respond to it,” he said, but in due time.

While the complaint process is outlined at www.MontanaDiscrimination.com, Beck said that confidentiality laws forbid her from speaking specifically about the case.

“But this one is an informal case,” said Beck. “We try to gather information to figure out whether or not there is reasonable cause to believe that a preponderance of the evidence supports the allegations of unlawful discrimination.”

Fleming said that the “nonarbitrary” selection process — which involves screening of applicants, interviews, a background check, criteria scoring and final consensus — remains effective.

“The bottom line,” added Fleming, “is that I think the district does a good job of hiring and having a process in place to hire the most qualified person.”

— Reporter Renata Birkenbuel may be reached via email at renata.birkenbuel; or telephone 496-5512.

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