A Sunnyside employee said her job is in jeopardy after administrators accused her of giving an internal job description document — containing information that was publicly available — to a person outside of the school district.
Lorraine Villegas-Rodriguez, who has worked for the district since 2008 and is currently a human resources specialist, said she is being wrongfully accused.
She has been on paid leave for nearly three months stemming from a district investigation launched in February after a KVOA reporter was seen with a copy of the job description pertaining to a position that was filled by the daughter of Governing Board member Louie Gonzales.
When Gonzales’ daughter, Michelle Morita, was transferred to the district’s human resources department, it raised questions about whether she met the qualifications for the program assistant position and the ethics of having the daughter of a board member, who is being targeted in a recall election, in an office with access to sensitive and confidential information.
KVOA reporter Matthew Schwartz showed the document to Gonzales when he interviewed him about Morita’s new position after a board meeting in February.
Schwartz told the Star that Villegas-Rodriguez was not his source.
Debra Bergman, assistant superintendent of human resources and organizational development, recommended Villegas-Rodriguez be dismissed because the district’s investigation showed she had printed out the document and refused to take a polygraph test. The district also alleges she gave the document to a third party along with “confidential information” regarding the document’s relevance.
Villegas-Rodriguez admitted to printing out the document twice because of her interest in applying for the position, but she denied giving it to anyone. The document in question detailed what qualifications are needed for the job, but did not have any personal information on it.
The position was posted for applicants Jan. 7 and Villegas-Rodriguez said she applied Jan. 14.
In the memo recommending Villegas-Rodriguez’ dismissal, Bergman wrote she did a “paper screening” on or around Jan. 20 of the candidates for the position, which included Morita, Villegas-Rodriguez and three applicants from outside the Sunnyside Unified School District. The screening, she wrote, showed Morita was qualified to work in HR.
Bergman called the move a “lateral transfer” and wrote that Morita, whose job title was a secretary III in professional development was hired as a secretary III in HR. Morita previously worked under Bergman when she was director of professional development.
Bergman noted in the memo that the district has allowed administrators to bring their secretaries with them when they move to a new department.
Villegas-Rodriguez said she wasn’t aware the screening had happened until she received the dismissal memo, and didn’t know the position was filled until Morita moved into HR.
Bergman wrote that Villegas-Rodriguez was the only employee who “expressed any motive in releasing the ... document to a third party.” She said two employees said Villegas-Rodriguez “expressed serious concerns” about Morita’s transfer into HR.
Villegas-Rodriguez said the only time she mentioned any concerns was after a KVOA story aired Feb. 19 about the issue and she and other colleagues were asked by a supervisor about their thoughts about the story.
The investigation into who released the document started Feb. 12, the morning after Schwartz interviewed Gonzales about Morita’s transfer and showed him the document.
Villegas-Rodriguez said employees from the human resources and benefits departments were called into a meeting with Superintendent Manuel Isquierdo, Bergman and other administrators.
“The way he was talking is that somebody had breached confidentiality and had given the media personnel documents of an employee,” and the incident was going to be investigated, Villegas-Rodriguez said.
Isquierdo told the employees a police report would be filed, Villegas-Rodriguez said. “He made it seem like it could have been their personnel file,” she said.
When employees returned to the HR office, Villegas-Rodriguez said district employees were moving filing cabinets and installing security cameras.
Villegas-Rodriguez said she was interviewed twice by Bergman and Bill Richards, the district’s director of maintenance and a former Tucson Police officer. She denied giving the document to anybody else.
On Feb. 26 she was assigned to home, but wasn’t given a reason why, and was prohibited from being on district property without Bergman’s written permission and from communicating with any employee of the district during work hours, except Bergman.
Villegas-Rodriguez said she has not been asked to perform work since being placed on leave.
Villegas-Rodriguez requested a hearing to get more information about why she was being placed on leave, her attorney Deborah Hansen said.
At the March 6 hearing, Richards and Bergman questioned Villegas-Rodriguez again and directed her to take a polygraph test. She said she declined and was told to remain at home.
On March 11, Bergman issued her dismissal recommendation, which Villegas-Rodriguez, who has no history of prior discipline, appealed.
In her appeal request, Villegas-Rodriguez reiterated she did not give the document to anybody and said that a copy of the document is kept in a binder in the HR office and is available to anybody with access to the office.
The district offered Villegas-Rodriguez a settlement agreement last week allowing her to continue working at the district but in a lower position in a different department for at least three years, with the same benefits and salary, but only if she first took a polygraph test. She also would not be allowed to discuss the matter with anybody.
She declined to accept the settlement under those terms.
“I feel that by taking the settlement I would be guilty. I’d be sad that I’d be demoted, be replaced no matter what I said. It would be that I was wrong and I’d lose my credibility,” Villegas-Rodriguez said.
Hansen called the agreement unfair: “The terms are essentially harassment.”
Hansen says she believes there’s a “hypersensitivity around criticism of family members of board members and administration members,” who work for the district.
A Sunnyside spokeswoman said the district would not comment on the issue.