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GES principal accused of discrimination

Superintendent vows to stand behind Billings

July 14, 2010
A complaint filed at the Norfolk Superior Court in Massachusetts against, among other parties, Gilford Elementary School Principal Jack Billings is being called "an attempt to discredit his name" by Gilford Superintendent Paul DeMinico, who stands ready to "defend his good name and his good work."

Deborah Onie of Brookline, Mass., has filed a complaint against Billings, the Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass., and Timberland CEO Jeffrey Swartz, the chairman of the school's Board of Directors.

Billings is the former general studies principal of Maimonides School, a private Jewish day school. In 2007, as principal, he interviewed Onie for a sixth-grade teaching position at Maimonides but did not hire her.

The complaint alleges that the accused parties "denied (Onie) employment on account of (her) age and retaliated against (her) for previously filing an age discrimination complaint against the school in Norfolk Superior Court on January 30, 2006."

The complaint says Onie has suffered damages in the form of loss of earnings and loss of fringe benefits, as well as great humiliation, mental anguish and suffering, and irreparable damage to her career.

Onie seeks an award of multiple damages and reasonable attorneys' fees. She is being represented by her husband, Larry Onie. Larry Onie told the Steamer that his wife's purpose is "just for Billings to tell the truth."

"It's about students and education and what the environment is like," Larry Onie said.

Onie had taught at Maimonides for 20 years before her employment was terminated in 2004. While some sources say Onie was let go as part of a wave of budget cuts, Larry Onie said his wife was not rehired because she refused to rewrite several boys' report card comments upon the demand of the school's then-principals. An investigation done after Onie filed a complaint of age and sex discrimination with MCAD in 2005, which was dismissed due to lack of probable cause, was included as part of the response to Onie's 2007 MCAD complaint. It stated that investigator Jeannine K. Rice found that there were at least 15 "significant criticisms" from parents, students, colleagues and the administration regarding Onie's attitude and behavior, and that Onie's supervisor, Rabbi Stuart Klammer, found Onie to be "virtually impossible to supervise."

"The Onies have been relentless in their pursuit of causing personal suffering or defaming the character of anyone directly or vicariously involved with Ms. Onie's original dismissal or her inability to be rehired," Billings wrote in a statement to the Steamer.

Onie filed her first complaint against Billings with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination in 2007, which was essentially the same as the current complaint but did not name Swartz as a respondent. She withdrew that complaint prior to filing her complaint in the Norfolk Superior Court on June 24.

In response to the 2007 MCAD complaint, Billings and Attorney Michael R. Coppock, counsel to Maimonides and Billings, denied any wrongdoing, specifically that Onie was not hired based on her age (61 at the time of the interview) or that she was being retaliated against because of the complaint and subsequent lawsuit she had filed previously against the school and two former school administrators.

According to the Brookline Tab newspaper, Onie had filed suit with the Norfolk Superior Court in 2006 alleging age discrimination, interference with her contract and defamation. A Tab story says that in 2008, a Superior Court judge dismissed the age discrimination and contract interference claims against the school, but a jury was asked to decide whether actions taken by the two school administrators constituted defamation. On June 23, 2009, the jury agreed that Onie's claims that the defendants had made false reports of misconduct constituted defamation. In the claim against Nancy Posner, a former elementary school principal at Maimonides, the jury awarded $10,756 in damages.

Onie's current complaint alleges that Billings was aware of the complaint she had filed with the MCAD in 2005 and the subsequent lawsuit filed in 2006, and that he didn't hire her because of it.

At the time Onie's first complaint and lawsuit were filed, Billings was dean of students in the upper school at Maimonides. He became Maimonides general studies principal July 1, 2007. He interviewed Onie July 11, 2007. In his response to the complaint, filed Oct. 22, 2007 with the MCAD, Billings denied that he had any knowledge of the lawsuit.

"He had no contact with the complainant in his previous positions with the school, and was unaware of her discrimination claim when he interviewed her He could not 'retailiate' against her for conduct of which he was not aware," Billings' position statement says.

Larry Onie said he has documentation to prove that Billings did know about the claim, but the documents are not public records at this point.

"At the time I sat and deliberated the sixth-grade teaching position I was completely unaware of that history," Billings told the Steamer.

In response to the age discrimination allegation, Billings denied that he was aware of the ages of any of the candidates he interviewed. The response to the MCAD complaint also states that Billings hired four people for Maimonides; two were under 40, and two were over 55.

Evidence provided by Billings and Coppock to the MCAD included the resumes and interview forms filled out by Billings for all the candidates he interviewed. Billings used a standard questionnaire he created for all interviewees, asking them the same questions and rating their responses. Onie scored a 64, while his top two candidates scored a 72 and a 65. The response further explains Billings' reasons for not calling Onie back for a second interview, including her alleged "lack of knowledge of current teaching theory," her alleged admission that she has not done any professional development in three years and her alleged statement that her professional growth is the result of isolated self-reflection.

The woman ultimately hired for the position was 28 at the time of her interview, but Billings says she was hired because of her educational background and experience and pointed to another, older woman he had hired for another position.

"Just three weeks prior to interviewing Ms. Onie I hired a special educator who was also let go by the Maimonides School at the same time as Ms. Onie (in 2004) The woman was 58 years old at the time of her re-hiring and remains a dynamic and effective member of the school's staff to this day," Billings wrote in a statement to the Steamer.

Billings was hired as principal of GES in 2009. Larry Onie told the Steamer that he did not believe Billings told DeMinico or the School Board about his wife's claim, but DeMinico said that at the time of his interview, Billings was open and honest regarding the complaint that Onie had filed against him in 2007.

"We were very impressed with him, and he was very upfront," DeMinico said, adding that he spoke with numerous people from Maimonides, aside from Billings' references, and "they couldn't say enough about him."

Around the same time that Billings interviewed Onie, he interviewed another former Maimonides teacher, Evelyn Berman, for a first-grade teaching position but did not hire her. Berman later filed a discrimination and retaliation complaint with the MCAD. Berman later accused Billings, in a Brookline Tab story, of lying under oath in his response to her complaint. Berman ultimately withdrew the complaint but wouldn't retract the story that was printed in the Brookline Tab.

DeMinico said he and the Gilford School Board are prepared to stand behind Billings should this go to trial, calling Billings "as ethical as the day is long."

Onie's complaint will undergo a discovery process through the Norfolk Superior Court before the court decides whether to bring it to trial.

"We stand ready to support Jack and address it as it comes," DeMinico said. "I don't see any wrongdoing I've known Jack for a year now, and I can't think of a finer person."

Martin Lord Osman
Littleton Chmber
Varney Smith
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