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MailTribune.com
  • CENTRAL POINT SCHOOL DISTRICT

    'Witch hunt' led to firing, lawsuit says

    Ex-business services manager asks for $1.4 million, job back
  • A former business services manager for the Central Point School District is suing the district in federal court for wrongful termination, claiming a biased school board "on a witch hunt" led to the loss of her job.
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  • A former business services manager for the Central Point School District is suing the district in federal court for wrongful termination, claiming a biased school board "on a witch hunt" led to the loss of her job.
    The school district counters it fired 24-year employee Vicki Robinson last year for a handful of poor business practices, including a $1.5 million budgeting error in 2011, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Medford.
    Lengthy depositions reveal years of animosity between Robinson and board members, with some holding Robinson responsible for another employee's alleged embezzlement in 2009 that may have led to that employee's suicide.
    Robinson was fired in August 2011 after a financial review two months earlier revealed numerous poor practices, such as an inefficient way of working on budget development and running a dysfunctional office, according to her termination letter written by Superintendent Randy Gravon.
    Robinson alleges she was fired because the school board had a bias against her for years and Gravon was afraid of losing his job if he didn't fire her — reasons that would break Oregon due-process laws, according to Robinson's court documents.
    Robinson is suing the district for more than $1.4 million in lost wages, health benefits, vacation time and other damages.
    Robinson also is asking that her position with the district be reinstated.
    Robinson declined to comment on the case and referred any questions to her lawyers, who weren't available to speak about the case Wednesday.
    Attorneys for the school district will argue that a judgment be made in the case at 10 a.m. today in District Court. But if a judge determines that the district might have violated a law, the case will move toward a scheduled trial in February.
    According to depositions given by school board members and Gravon in January, the board was first concerned with Robinson's work performance in 2009, after she and a district accountant began using new software and discovered a discrepancy in student body funds at Crater High School.
    Robinson called the school's bookkeeper to ask about the discrepancy, and later the same day, the bookkeeper committed suicide, according to Robinson's account.
    In a suicide note to Robinson, the woman said "she couldn't live with what she had done" and was sorry for the later-discovered alleged embezzlement, which Robinson said totaled more than $100,000 over several years, according to court documents.
    As a result of that incident, several policies in the accounting of district funds were changed, Gravon said Wednesday, including a new accounting system and "more checks and balances."
    Apart from that, Gravon said he couldn't comment on the case. "It's a lot of information, and I wish I could talk about it," he said.
    Board member June Brock said in meetings in 2009 and 2010 that she believed Robinson should have caught the alleged embezzlement sooner. Brock also was irritated over Robinson's accrued vacation time. Brock suggested Gravon fire Robinson, according to court documents.
    Working off an old district policy, Robinson had 152 accrued vacation days, which the district determined she could legally cash in when she retired. A new policy limits employees to 35 accrued days.
    While working on the budget for the 2011-12 school year, the business department projected a shortfall of about $4.3 million, leading to a series of community forums to discuss severe cuts that might have to be made.
    A budgeting error, which was discovered months later, had caused the district to overlook about $1.5 million in available federal funds.
    The news was embarrassing for board members, according to a deposition by Brock.
    "We looked like fools in front of the public, and I did not appreciate that," said Brock.
    After the budgeting error, other board members suggested that Gravon fire Robinson, according to court documents.
    It was at this point, Robinson believes, that Gravon feared if he didn't fire her, the board would consider firing him. She said the board wanted to hold someone accountable for the budgeting error, court documents state.
    Another district accountant said she heard Gravon say that if Robinson weren't fired, he likely would be, according to the documents.
    Gravon placed Robinson on administrative leave in April 2011 while he hired a finance team to look over the business office's practices and how the $1.5 million error occurred. He told Robinson he would allow her to respond to the findings afterward, according to Robinson.
    Robinson said that Gravon apologized for putting her on leave, saying that the board was "engaged in a witch hunt," according to her deposition.
    The audit brought up numerous concerns about the district's business practices, documents state.
    In May, Gravon informed Robinson that she would be terminated. On Aug. 11, the school board voted to accept Gravon's recommendation for Robinson's dismissal.
    Because of her lack of an opportunity to respond to the alleged poor business practices she was fired for, and the fact that her termination was decided before she could respond to any allegations, Robinson is claiming that she wasn't afforded due process.
    The former employee seeks $1 million in "noneconomic" damages, more than $400,000 in lost wages, and $65,000 in accrued vacation time.
    Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com
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