California school sued over retaliation, wrongful termination

The Olive Grove Charter School that operates in numerous locations around Santa Barbara is facing allegations that it wrongfully terminated an upper-level employee who complained about certain improprieties going on.

The allegations come from a former employee who had served as board treasurer for the school and then was promoted to controller and chief operating officer in March 2018. By July 31, however, she was out the door after she alerted the school’s board of directors that the school’s executive director and chief executive officer was involved in activities that were not just unethical but also illegal.

Among the allegations from the former employee:

  • The executive director was involved in a sexual relationship with a senior official of the company with which the school had its largest contract, the Charter School Management Corporation. Due to the economic nature of the contract between the school and corporation, there’s a financial conflict of interest that violates the law in California.
  • The executive director engaged in nepotism, hiring one of her daughters as a teaching assistant — despite a lack of credentials and without following the normal protocol for new hires. In addition, this daughter was paid more than twice the normal hourly rate than other new hires in the same position.
  • The executive director is also suspected of arranging to have another daughter’s grades changed in the school’s computer system. Those improved grades were used to help the student gain admission to UC Santa Cruz.
  • The executive director misused funds for the school in various ways, including buying a $10,000 saltwater tank for a class that didn’t exist, booking five-star hotels for conferences instead of using more reasonable accommodations plus buying expensive furniture and other equipment that was also not necessary for the school.

The former employee presented information about the issues to the board president. About a week later, the executive director put the employee on leave and then abruptly terminated her within a week for poor job performance.

If the allegations are true, this is a stark example of how some private companies and institutions tend to operate like personal fiefdoms — employees who stick up for their values and do what’s right are sometimes badly mistreated. There are, however, legal solutions when you’ve suffered retaliation on the job and wrongful termination.