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ACSU faces lawsuit from former business manager

MIDDLEBURY — The Addison Central Supervisory Union’s former business manager is suing her past employer, claiming — among other things — that she was bullied by the district’s top executive and then placed on administrative leave after she complained about his behavior.
Sharon L. Stearns, who served as ACSU business manager for nine years prior to resigning last spring, filed her four-count civil suit in Rutland County Superior Court on Sept. 13.
Stearns alleges in her lawsuit that:
•  Lee Sease, then ACSU superintendent, was “bullying” her and creating a hostile work environment, at the same time that she raised concerns in December of 2010 that the ACSU had not provided the public with written copies of the UD-3 school district’s proposed annual budget prior to the annual meeting. She also questioned whether hourly district staff had been accurately compensated.
•  Sease “retaliated” against her by placing her on administrative leave, ordering that she undergo a “fitness for duty” evaluation before she could return to work. Stearns added that Sease “maneuvered” the ACSU board into mandating that she undergo a psychological evaluation.
Ultimately, the ACSU board commissioned a study of the work climate within the central office and created a list of return-to-work conditions — including monitoring of her performance as if she were on probation — that Stearns argued were “onerous, unreasonable, intolerable and unacceptable.”
Stearns alleged that she had accumulated an exemplary track record in her position, with school principals allegedly acknowledging her “excellent work ethic.”
“Defendant created an intolerable ‘Catch 22’ quagmire for the plaintiff: In order to return to work, as she wished to do, she must, in effect, admit that defendant did not ‘bully’ or harass her, ignore some of the accounting reporting requirements and take the blame for staff turmoil that the defendant’s superintendent created,” the lawsuit alleges.
•  The district, in announcing Stearns was being placed on administrative leave, did not give a specific reason for her departure, stating only she would “be on personal leave for an indefinite period of time.” This announcement, Stearns claims, left people with the impression that she was ill, or that she “was negligent or abandoned the central office for selfish reasons during a time when she was needed to prepare reports and other documentation for impending deadlines, creating, at minimum, ‘inconveniences’ for staff members.” December and January are key months for crafting school budgets in time for Town Meeting Day.
Stearns formally resigned last June, though she argued the ACSU board’s conditions for her return were untenable and in effect were tantamount to her firing.
The ACSU recently hired Paula Van Minos as its new business manager. The ACSU board did not renew Sease’s contract and hired Gail Conley to serve as district superintendent for this academic year.
Stearns is suing the ACSU for “wrongful constructive discharge and retaliation,” “wrongful termination-breach of employment contract,” “breach of implied employment contract,” and “breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.”
Stearns alleges she has suffered “irreparable injuries” including loss of career opportunities, compensation and benefits, and other economic losses; emotional pain and suffering; mental anguish; humiliation; embarrassment; personal indignity; and other intangible injuries.
She is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, reimbursement for attorney’s fees and other relief a jury might choose to award.
Mark Perrin, ACSU board chairman, said he and his colleagues are aware of the Stearns’ lawsuit. He said the board discussed the complaint in executive session on Sept. 21 with two attorneys, one representing the school board, the other representing the district’s insurance carrier, the Vermont School Boards Insurance Trust.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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