Fired Beverly Hills Superintendent Claims Anti-Gay Bias
In a lawsuit believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, the former superintendent of the Beverly Hills, Calif., schools claims that the district accused him of financial wrongdoing to justify firing him and to cover up the real reason for his dismissal: He is gay.
The school board voted 3-2 in August to fire Robert W. Pellicone, accusing him of making improper charges on his district credit card. The move came one year after Mr. Pellicone had moved from Eastchester, N.Y., where he also had been the superintendent, to take the top job in the 5,300-student California district.
Mr. Pellicone contends in his lawsuit, filed Feb. 22 in Los Angeles Superior Court, that the district violated a state law forbidding employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.
He says personnel changes he made shortly after arriving in the district angered board and staff members, sparking harassment and discrimination against him. Fliers were distributed that drew attention to his sexual orientation and "questioned his fitness to educate children," the suit says. He contends that he was falsely accused of trying to hire his domestic partner as his secretary, and that one board member set up an Internet chat room to "find out gossip" about him.
By last June, the lawsuit says, the board had begun questioning his expense reports and expenditures "as a pretext to discredit and terminate" him. In July, the board issued a statement of charges against him, citing portions of the California education code that permit the firing of an employee for "dishonesty," "evident unfitness for service," and "persistent violation of or refusal to obey" school or state laws.
The 11-page statement of charges and Mr. Pellicone’s lengthy written response remain confidential, since they are part of a personnel matter.
Mr. Pellicone, in a brief interview last week, declined to discuss details of the case, but said that with a dozen years of experience as a superintendent—in Lower Moreland, Pa., as well as Eastchester—he knows his job and did it well.
"This issue of being unfit for service is totally unconscionable," he said. "We’re not going to play this out in the media. We are going to play it out in front of a jury in a courtroom."
Board members also declined to discuss details of the allegations, but several said that Mr. Pellicone’s claim of anti-gay bias was groundless.
"Any allegation or question of his sexual orientation is totally ridiculous," said board member Alissa Roston. "There are teachers in the district who are gay and who are ‘out.’ This is not a community where that would be an issue."
Dana McCune, a lawyer for the school district, said that Mr. Pellicone had brought up the issue of anti-gay bias only recently. "The fact that it wasn’t raised before gives rise to the inference that there is no merit to it," Mr. McCune said.
Richard A. Stone, one of the two board members who voted against the termination of Mr. Pellicone, said he didn’t believe that the superintendent’s credit card spending justified firing him.
"The excuse that was given, in my view, was not the only reason they were doing what they were doing," said Mr. Stone, who refused to elaborate.
But Eric Bathen, the general counsel to the district, said there was "substantial reason" for the district to use the early-termination clause in Mr. Pellicone’s contract. The Los Angeles County Office of Education, which has financial oversight of districts within the county, examined Mr. Pellicone’s spending and challenged his charges for liquor, because district employees are prohibited by law from using public funds for alcoholic drinks, Mr. Bathen said.
Also challenged, among other items, were Mr. Pellicone’s spending on hotels and restaurants and on some moving expenses, such as the rental of a motor home in which a friend drove Mr. Pellicone’s Great Danes cross-country, Mr. Pellicone’s flight to Oklahoma to help when the motor home broke down, and a charge for its repair, Mr. Bathen said.
Mr. McCune said Mr. Pellicone has reimbursed the district for some but not all of the challenged expenses. He said he was not sure of the total dollar figure still in dispute, but said it was "well into the thousands."
Mr. Bathen would not discuss how the matter was brought to the attention of the county’s office of education. Ms. Roston, who obtained details of Mr. Pellicone’s credit card spending under the state public-records law last year while she was running for election to the school board, said she filed the request because the monthly sums, included in the packet of information available at schools before board meetings, "seemed high."
Mr. Pellicone’s lawsuit represents the first known case of a superintendent suing his district for anti-homosexual bias, said David Buckel, a lawyer for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay-rights legal-advocacy group in New York City. More teachers are suing over claims of such bias since two gay teachers—Wendy Weaver in Utah and Bruce Glover in Ohio—won discrimination cases in federal courts in 1998, he said.
Mr. Buckel added that he expected similar actions by gay administrators to be "the next wave" of anti-discrimination litigation by educators.
It is not unusual for administrators to disagree with school boards about the real reason for their dismissals.
"Often the board says it’s finances, but it may be something else," said C.J. Reid, who oversees legal services for the American Association of School Administrators, a national organization based in Arlington, Va. "Finances tends to be something easier to go after."
Mr. Reid estimated that between 50 and 60 administrators a year seek the AASA’s help with legal expenses for claims of wrongful termination. But he said he knew of no other such case in which an administrator had claimed anti-gay bias.
Vol. 19, Issue 26, Page 3Published in Print: March 8, 2000, as Fired Beverly Hills Superintendent Claims Anti-Gay Bias