Two former employees of Arlington's middle school filed a $7 million lawsuit in federal court Monday alleging that school officials wrongfully terminated them based on suspicions they were having an affair.
In a 45-page civil complaint filed in US District Court, one-time Ottoson Middle School principal Stavroula Bouris and Charles E. Coughlin, a technology teacher, allege their civil rights were violated when they were fired in 2007 by then-Superintendent Nathan Levenson.
They say talk of an affair was untrue, a story drummed up in retaliation after Levenson made two failed attempts to oust Bouris months earlier.
Last October, arbitrator Richard G. Boulanger found Coughlin’s termination was not justified and awarded him the right to assume his old job, as well as full back pay and benefits.
The Arlington School Committee has since appealed that decision.
Bouris’ arbitration case is still ongoing, said attorney Frank Mondano.
Today, Town Manager Brian Sullivan said though he believes the town has a “strong defense” in this case, town counsel has been talking informally with Mondano in an effort to try and resolve the matter outside the courtroom.
“I think both sides have an interest in trying to work this out,” he said.
Other defendants reached Tuesday declined to comment.
The ongoing disputes dates to late January 2007, when Levenson informed Bouris her contract would not likely be renewed. A few weeks later, the suit says, Levenson then tried to unsuccessfully to “coerce” a resignation from Bouris, suggesting that she might be the subject of an untrue story about fondling a child if she did not agree to step down.
When she declined, Levenson announced that Bouris’ contract would not be renewed in March 2007, provoking strong public backlash. Bouris’ contract was renewed shortly thereafter.
School Committee chairman Joseph Curran, a vocal but minority critic of the school committee’s defense of the firings, said he believes Levenson’s complaint with Bouris and Coughlin was a personnel matter that evolved into something personal.
“It looked like he tried to muscle her out and she stood her ground,” he said. “It was a tit for tat thing.”
According to the complaint, Levenson, acting on gossip overheard by Tracy Buck, a school technology department manager, monitored e-mails between the pair beginning in March 2007.
Levenson, and possibly Buck and others, then hacked into Bouris’ private e-mail account. In early June, Levenson ordered attorney Alan Miller of Stoneham, Chandler & Miller LLP to begin investigating Bouris and Coughlin to see if there was enough evidence to fire them for “inappropriate conduct,” the complaint alleges.
Levenson, who abruptly stepped down from his post in August 2008 amid Coughlin’s arbitration, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
He now runs District and Community Partners, a Boston-based education consulting firm.
When reached at her office yesterday afternoon, Buck said she was “in a meeting” and hung up the phone without comment.
The suit alleges that Levenson and Miller “manipulated the investigation into the conduct of Bouris and Coughlin in order to create the appearance of legitimacy to the decision [Levenson] had already made to terminate them.”
Bouris and Coughlin are seeking $7 million in damages, saying the School Committee was negligent by failing to properly supervise, control, train and discipline Levenson, Buck and Jeffrey Thielman, a school committee member.
Thielman declined to comment on the lawsuit yesterday, saying he had not had an opportunity to see it.
Curran said the school district, already looking at a potential budget shortfall of between $4 million and $6.8 million and losing as many as 40 positions for upcoming school year, would be rocked financially if ordered to pay a $7 million judgment.
“Until this case is over, Arlington can’t move on. It’s a black cloud ‘til it lifts,” said Curran.