by Rachel Schleif, World Staff Writer, in Wenatchee World
WATERVILLE — Both sides of a discrimination lawsuit against Eastmont School District agree that Patricia Valdez-Zontek was treated differently from other administrators.
In court this week, Valdez-Zontek’s attorney Robin Phillips tried to prove that school administrators and the school board discriminated against Valdez-Zontek as a woman and a Latina when they called for a state audit of her time sheets and, the lawyer said, spread a false rumor that she was having an affair with former superintendent Joel Thaut.
School district attorney Jerry Moberg argued that the school district had a right to investigate Valdez-Zontek six years ago, when it suspected Thaut favored Valdez-Zontek
Lawyers questioned the trial’s key witnesses, Thaut and Valdez-Zontek, Tuesday and Wednesday in Douglas County Superior Court.
“The question is why would a superintendent knowingly approve a time sheet for an employee that was on a beach in Hawaii?” Moberg said in an interview after court.
Moberg displayed poster-sized time sheets to show how Valdez-Zontek claimed thousands of dollars in summer 2001 for time worked while she was taking a class toward a doctorate, vacationing in Hawaii and for time she was already paid for, he said.
Thaut said the way Valdez-Zontek filled out her time sheet without bringing it to a supervisor “wouldn’t be proper procedure.”
“That’s the protection taxpayers have against this money being spent inappropriately,” Moberg said.
Thaut said he did not approve a summer contract for Valdez-Zontek in 2001, although she testified they discussed it. When asked if Thaut thought about disciplining her for working anyway, he said no.
The school board called for a state audit of her time sheets and sent two board members to investigate the alleged relationship between Valdez-Zontek and Thaut.
Thaut testified during Phillips’ questioning that the school board rarely got involved in personnel matters, except employee contracts.
Thaut told Moberg he didn’t know of any other Eastmont administrator who turned in a time sheet as Valdez-Zontek had.
Valdez-Zontek submitted the time sheet on the wrong form, she signed as the employee and supervisor and wrote in work hours on days she was on vacation. Valdez-Zontek testified she thought it was common practice for employees to avoid reporting overtime by spreading overtime hours onto other days.
Valdez-Zontek and Thaut said the school board’s investigation was inappropriate, in part because board members announced a false rumor to other school district employees before notifying Valdez-Zontek and Thaut of the investigation.
Thaut testified he had had extramarital affairs with two other Eastmont employees, but insisted he and Valdez-Zontek were just friends.
Valdez-Zontek cried on the witness stand Tuesday as she described an unexpected meeting with former Assistant Superintendent Mike Brophy and former board president Ken Miller.
The two interviewed her staff and then her in response to an allegation that Valdez-Zontek instructed her employees to alter or destroy documents for the audit. She said she wanted a witness to be in the room during the meeting, but did not have time to find one, she said.
“I felt that it didn’t even matter that I worked or anyone even asked me what I did,” Valdez-Zontek said during Phillips’ questioning. “They were listening to stories from individuals.”
Thaut testified he offered the school board a letter of resignation and a contract of conditions sometime before December 2001. The conditions included: no communication of any sort with the state auditor, attorney general or Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction regarding disciplinary action; a gag order on the administrative team; no retaliation against Valdez-Zontek or her secretary; that the school board relay the reasons for Thaut’s resignation as family-related; and that the board provide a letter of recommendation saying Thaut was an effective superintendent.
Moberg asked Thaut why he wrote conditions with his resignation letter to which he replied, “I just wanted it to end right there.”
Thaut publicly announced his plans to resign in February 2002, four months before Valdez-Zontek resigned.
The case involves more than 5,000 documents, Moberg said. About 40 witnesses are scheduled to testify in the next two weeks.
The jury members are five men and seven women, including two Latinas.
Valdez-Zontek’s lawyers will argue these claims against the district: disparate treatment; intentional and neglectful emotional distress; defamation; invasion of privacy; retaliation; and constructive discharge.
Valdez-Zontek will seek an undetermined amount of money for emotional distress, medical bills related to stress, attorney fees and other monetary damages, Phillips said.