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Former Wellesley Public Schools business manager files lawsuit against Superintendent and School Committee Chair

Posted by Evan Allen  May 8, 2012 11:07 AM

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The former business manager of Wellesley Public Schools has filed suit against the Superintendent and the Chair of the School Committee seeking unspecified damages over her recent termination, alleging conspiracy and defamation.

The suit, filed Monday in Middlesex Superior Court, casts former business manager Ruth Quinn Berdell as a scapegoat for Superintendent Bella Wong and School Committee Chair Suzy Littlefield. Berdell worked in the district for 26 years before being placed on voluntary paid administrative leave last November and fired in March.

“Ruth Berdell enjoyed a very good relationship with the school, and was doing a very good job,” said Berdell’s lawyer Laura Studen, senior partner at law firm Burns & Levinson LLP. “We believe that Bella, with the assistance of Suzy Littlefield, needed a fall guy for the problems in Wellesley.”

Both Wong and Littlefield declined to comment.

Studen said that she is also pursuing arbitration with the district on behalf of her client.

“When we win, Ruth will be entitled to reinstatement of her job, which she has indicated from the beginning that she wants,” said Studen. “She will be happy to work with the new superintendent.”

Wellesley Town Counsel Al Robinson said that the district does not believe that Berdell is eligible for arbitration. The matter is before the Commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for decision, he said.

The lawsuit is the latest chapter in a drama that has roiled the district for the past year, and led to Wong’s resignation from her post in November, less than two weeks before Berdell was placed on leave. Wong’s resignation is effective at the end of the school year.

The problems began last spring, when it was discovered that the business office had failed to collect about $169,000 in school lunch fees.

An audit triggered by the discovery and released in September showed a business office that operated with few written protocols and little outside oversight. It found a lack of “adequate monitoring or analytical procedures being applied to the management of the various revenue cycles of the schools.”

Wong has blamed the collection lapse on faulty billing software that has since been replaced.

The suit alleges that Berdell’s termination was a calculated move by Wong and Littlefield to save Wong’s reputation after the missing lunch debt became a lightning rod for the district.

It alleges that Wong and Littlefield “formed a plan that Wong would resign from her position effective at the end of the school year, attributing such resignation to ‘ongoing public concern over school operational protocols’ while placing Berdell on ‘voluntary paid leave,’ with the intent to ultimately terminate her and casting blame and responsibility for a plethora of issues on Berdell.”

Studen pointed to a glowing performance review that Berdell received from Wong, written in July and signed by both Wong and Berdell in October of last year, as evidence that right up until she was placed on leave, Berdell was a high-performing employee with the full backing of the district.

“I feel extremely fortunate to have you as a colleague,” Wong wrote in the evaluation. “Your work is always excellent, but your workload is extremely demanding.”

Wong said in her evaluation that problems with the food service department were caused largely by other employees, but that she and Berdell were the two who “bore the public brunt of the bad outcome.”

Less than a month after receiving the review, Berdell was placed on leave and subsequently fired.

According to the district, Berdell's salary for the 2011-2012 school year would have been $138,211 had she stayed the full year. She will not be paid for the full year, according to the district, although accrued benefits will bump her far over her normal salary.

Between July 1, 2011 and March 13 of this year, according to figures provided by Assistant Superintendent Salvatore Petralia, Berdell received $183,364 in compensation. The total includes $84,359 in accrued vacation pay, said Petralia. She was also paid $48,718 in regular pay since going on leave in mid-November, he said.

Berdell’s reputation has been savaged by her leave and termination, said Studen, and she has lost more than just a paycheck.

“Losing that career is devastating,” said Studen. “It’s really about the loss of relationships, loss of self-esteem, loss of self worth. All in circumstances where you know it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right.”

Studen declined to say how much Berdell is seeking in damages.

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com

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