2010-11-24 / Front Page

Former CCPS employee loses age discrimination lawsuit

By Donna C. Gregory

Marlow Marlow Chesterfield County Public Schools (CCPS) and its legal team were evidently the better communicators last week in U.S. District Court. The school system prevailed in an age-discrimination suit brought by 61-year-old Debra Marlow, CCPS’ longtime spokeswoman.

After two days of testimony, it took an eight-person jury – heavily stacked with members over the age of 50 – about seven hours to come back with the verdict on Friday. Marlow was seeking at least $98,000 in damages, claiming she retired after 22 years with CCPS instead of accepting a demotion.

She had served as the school system’s director of community relations (DCR) since 1987. In 2008, she was moved from that position to an equivalent position – as director of business and government relations (BGR) – and her much younger assistant, Tim Bullis, was promoted to DCR. Five months later, the BGR position was on the chopping block due to budget cuts.

When Marlow received the news her job was being eliminated, she asked Superintendent Marcus Newsome to move her back to DCR. Newsome refused, instead offering her a position with slightly less pay and clout.

“[Newsome] said, ‘I want someone with 21st-century communication skills, and Tim is better at that.’ It’s my belief that Tim Bullis was not any better at any communication skills than I was. It was a veiled comment about age because he hadn’t made an objective comparison of our skills,” Marlow testified last week. “I told them that if they demoted me and reduced my pay, it would be discriminatory.”

Marlow earned $115,000 as BGR, plus a $9,000 car allowance. She was offered a position as the coordinator of Communities in Schools, paying $109,000 with no car allowance.

“She intentionally retired instead of accepting a job running the Communities in Schools program,” said Michael Chernau, senior assistant county attorney.

“It was a two-grade demotion, and I decided not to take a two-grade demotion in a discriminatory environment,” said Marlow during her testimony. “I’d hoped to work until I was 65. The way the economy was…it encouraged you to work longer.”

Instead, she notified CCPS of her intent to retire in March 2009. Her retirement was official on June 30, 2009, but she worked another year, until June 30 this year, as part of CCPS’ supplemental retirement program.

During her tenure, Marlow worked under six superintendents, receiving “outstanding” job evaluations from each of them, including Newsome, who came to CCPS in 2006. From the beginning, it was clear Newsome favored working with Marlow’s younger assistant, testified Marlow.

“It was obvious he valued Tim’s opinion above mine. He would go directly to him with projects he had instead of coming to me. It became apparent to both of us quickly…when Tim presented ideas, they were more readily accepted. [Tim and I] agreed Tim would carry ideas forward [even if they were my ideas],” testified Marlow.

Marlow’s attorneys presented evidence backing up her claims that Newsome favored youth, including a PowerPoint presentation he created that talked about how younger people are better at navigating technology.

They also presented evidence regarding another employee’s grievance against CCPS. James Hill, a former tech teacher, claims he lost his job when younger teachers with less seniority kept their jobs during layoffs in 2009. Roger Gray, who works for the Virginia Education Association and represented Hill during his grievance proceedings, testified a younger teacher was left off CCPS’ reduction-in-force list, which documents teachers’ credentials and years of service. The document was used to help the HR department determine which tech teachers were to be laid off based on seniority and education.

County attorney Stylian Parthemos argued Hill was laid off because he lacked proper credentials – not because of his age.

Chernau disputed Marlow’s discrimination claims, saying the elimination of her position and Newsome’s refusal to restore her to DCR had nothing to do with her age.

“In April 2008, when Ms. Marlow transferred [to the BGR position], the school board had no idea the economy was going to fall off the cliff,” forcing the layoff of 64 people. “Ms. Marlow was not laid off; she chose to retire,” said Chernau. The elimination of the BGR position was just part of the “realities of a bad economy,” added Chernau.

During closing statements, Parthemos said 14 of CCPS’ 20 department heads are over 50 years old.

Newsome took the stand during testimony and quoted Marlow as saying, “I’m really not into that technology stuff.”

When Bullis moved up to the DCR position, CCPS began relying more on technology to spread its public-relations message. The school system has a presence on both Facebook and Twitter. Bullis’ current assistant, Shawn Smith, sends out multiple “tweets” during school board meetings.

Newsome keeps a blog and is known for showing PowerPoint presentations and videos during school board meetings – many of them created by his own hand.

“One of our employees recommended we settle this,” said Newsome, following testimony on Thursday, “but I thought we should stand on principle.

“We’re pleased that the federal judicial system validated the school board’s processes and that it acted within its rights during a very difficult past two years in our economy. We were confident all along that we had acted in the best interest of our students and employees. I wish the plaintiff well and hope that she will find peace now that she has received her day in court. We look forward to refocusing our efforts on serving the students and citizens of Chesterfield County,” said Newsome after the verdict.

“I am disappointed with the outcome; however, I don’t regret pursuing the action. The judge denied motions that would have dismissed the case, and so we believe the case had merit. I did what I thought was best for me,” said Marlow, who now works at Lucy Corr Village.

The school system was represented by the county attorney’s office at no additional charge to CCPS.

*With additional reporting by Greg Pearson

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