SGV Tribune

Montebello Unified sued over employee firing

After a year of four negative audits, Montebello Unified School District again is under fire. But it’s not the employee who’s suing.

Montebello Unified School District, in the past under fire from four audits for how it handles its finances, has been sued by its own Personnel Commission over the firing of the district’s acting director of classified human resources less than two months on the job.

Classified employees are non-teachers. On March  2, the district fired Pierre Demian, who had been hired by the commission on Jan. 20 on an interim basis to succeed Marlene Pitchford.

Reached by phone, Robert Tafoya, an attorney hired by the commission, said the firing was to circumvent the district’s merit system for non-teaching employees.

“There are no checks and balances,” Tafoya said of the district. “They’re putting in whoever they want, whenever they want, qualified or not qualified. That’s what we’re suing them for.”

He called the firing illegal because Demian was hired by the commission and his salary was paid for out of its budget, meaning Montebello Unified didn’t have the authority to fire him.

However, the school district’s attorney, Terence J. Gallagher, wrote in court papers that the commission lacked standing to sue.

“Here, (the commission) brings various claims which amount to wrongful termination claims that should ordinarily be brought by the terminated former employee or the teacher’s association.” Gallagher wrote.

Demian has not filed a lawsuit and in a telephone interview said he hopes not to.

Gallagher contends in legal documents it is the school board that has “the power to employ, pay and otherwise control all classified employees.

Tthe commission’s lawsuit argues Demian’s removal allows the district “to continue to install unqualified personnel.” The district already has a poor track record hiring, according to the state audit released in November 2017, Tafoya wrote.

“The board has routinely mismanaged funds and taken questionable actions regarding its employees which is exactly what is happening now,” he said, referring to the audit’s finding that poor fiscal leadership put the district in financial peril. The audit showed the district hired candidates who did not meet minimum qualifications, and it did not follow its own policies and procedures in hiring.

Three other audits released in 2018 found problems in adult school hiring, issues with the district’s construction bond program  and “significant deficiencies” in nine areas, including employee turnover.

Since then, the district is making progress, according to a new audit it released in December.

During his tenure, Demian said the district disregarded the merit system in a number of ways. For example, he was asked to approve overtime for a lieutenant in the district ‘s Police Department, although he was not eligible, and ordered to hire people who were not qualified, Demian said.

In the lawsuit, Tafoya also said staff members were being placed into eliminated classifications. Meanwhile, he said, the board was hiring for non-teaching positions, a responsibility of the Personnel Commission, not the district.

The case is pending in Los Angeles Superior Court with a trial setting conference set for July 16.

Judge Samantha Jessner earlier this month in her written ruling, denied

Earlier this month, Tafoya requested a temporary restraining order to return Demian to his position and order the district to not interfere with the Personnel Commission, but Judge Samantha Jessner denied it, saying there is no emergency because school is not in session and there will be no new school until mid-August.