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November 07. 2013 10:55PM

Newly elected Manchester school board member sues ex-employer, the city school district, over firing

MANCHESTER — The newly elected Ward 12 school board representative recently filed a lawsuit against the Manchester School District alleging she was wrongfully dismissed from her job at an adult learning center.

Constance "Connie" Van Houten did not disclose that she had or was intending to pursue the lawsuit, which was filed Oct. 28, a week before the election, in Hillsborough County Superior Court.

Van Houten won the election for the Ward 12 school board seat over Christine Duffley 504 votes to 460, or by 4 percentage points. Van Houten was backed by the city Democrats, while Duffley was supported by the Republicans.

Superintendent Debra Livingston said "nothing has been given to me" concerning the lawsuit. She added that she was aware that there were questions about a lawsuit, and that she was in the process of responding to a request from the school board for information about pending legal actions against the district. Beyond this, Livingston said she couldn't comment.

According to court documents, the district will be served with the suit on Dec. 12 and will have 30 days to respond.

Duffley, Van Houten's opponent, said she was "shocked and saddened" to learn about the legal action. "I believed Connie to be a sincere person. It would appear this might be a conflict of interest to be on the board," she said.

Van Houten taught high school in the Manchester district for 36 years before she retired, according to the lawsuit. In the spring of 2012, she was teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) part-time at the Manchester Adult Education Center, which is run by the school district at the Manchester School of Technology. According to the suit, she observed a colleague coming in late and leaving early, and she informed the co-director of the center of the "time-clock theft."

The co-director then became critical of Van Houten's "abilities as an educator." Over the subsequent weeks, Van Houten alleges the co-director subjected her to other forms of "retaliation," including increasing the size of her class and preventing her class from using computers.

"As a professional educator with over forty years of experience, Ms. Van Houten (felt) that her ability to teach this class had been compromised by this retaliation," the lawsuit states.

On June 4, at the end of the school year, Van Houten alleges she met with two supervisors to discuss "her concerns and the retaliation she had been subjected to." Van Houten indicated that she expected to return to her job in the fall, but was told she wouldn't be informed of the schedule until August. The co-director at that time gave her a "positive reference," according to the suit.

At an Aug. 15 meeting with school supervisors, Van Houten was told her she "would not be allowed to return to her position," the suit states. She had been told that the decision was based on a funding issue, a claim the suit dismisses, asserting that all staff, including Van Houten's replacement, had already been hired before the meeting.

The suits seeks unspecified damages for wrongful discharge, breach of contract and infliction of emotional distress, among other charges. In her campaign, Van Houten emphasized her extensive experience as an educator, particularly in the areas of English, ESL and special education. She's currently an adjunct at Manchester Community College, according to the candidate profile she submitted to the New Hampshire Union Leader.

"The district's highest priority should be to provide the quality of education that will best prepare our students for college and/or the jobs of today and tomorrow," Van Houten writes in the profile.

The suit raises the likelihood that Van Houten herself will be on the board when it is asked to review the case.

Van Houten did not return messages on Thursday.


tsiefer@unionleader.com


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