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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on March 13th, 2019, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 2 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 20, Issue 2

Former Olive Grove employee files wrongful termination suit

By KASEY BUBNASH

A Central Coast charter school system is facing legal trouble again, this time in the form of a lawsuit recently filed by a former employee alleging wrongful termination.

The complaint, which was filed on March 5 by Santa Barbara-based law firm Anticouni and Associates, alleges that former Olive Grove Charter School employee Dawn Wilson was wrongfully terminated in July 2018. Wilson claims the firing was a sudden move made in retaliation for a number of complaints she took to Olive Grove's board of directors regarding the school system's executive director, Laura Mudge.


MORE TROUBLE
A former employee alleges wrongful termination against Olive Grove Charter School in a recently filed lawsuit.
FILE PHOTO BY SEAN MCNULTY

Wilson, according to the complaint, started her work with Olive Grove in 2016 as a part-time human resources and administrative assistant in Santa Maria. She was then was promoted several times until she was named the school system's full-time chief operating officer in March 2018. In that position, which she held until she was fired in July 2018, Wilson oversaw day-to-day operations, the accounting department, and finances; approved expenditures; and negotiated contracts.

In the complaint, Wilson claims she worked closely with Executive Director Mudge and repeatedly complained about Mudge's "unethical and unlawful behavior" to the board of directors and its president.

Mudge, Wilson alleges in the complaint, was having an affair with a high-ranking official at the Charter School Management Corporation, a company that provides financial services to charter schools and allegedly holds Olive Grove's largest contract. Wilson also claims that Mudge hired her own unqualified daughter as a teacher's assistant and then paid her more than twice what other teacher's assistants make each year, and also enhanced another daughter's end-of-year grades upon her graduation from Olive Grove.

Wilson also alleges that Mudge misused public funds in a number of ways, including a costly computer purchase allegedly made without board approval, a $10,000 saltwater fish tank for a marine biology program not yet being offered, a $2,000 loveseat for the sitting area in Olive Grove's Lompoc location, and pricey hotel rooms.

The complaint states that Wilson told the board of directors and Mudge herself that Wilson was dissatisfied with Mudge's behavior, and the board president eventually asked Wilson on July 12, 2018, to investigate the allegation that Mudge enhanced her daughter's grades. Wilson alleges that she investigated and provided the board president with an update on July 15 of that year, then was placed on administrative leave on July 23, 2018, and informed of her firing a few days later on July 30.

Wilson claims the termination was in direct retaliation to her complaints about Mudge, was wrongful, and inflicted intentional emotional distress. She is seeking compensatory, general, and special damages for punitive fees, attorneys' fees, pre and post judgment interest, as well as compensation for consequential and incidental financial losses, including loss of earnings and employment benefits.

Wilson's attorneys could not be reached for comment before the Sun's press time.

Although Mudge said she couldn't comment on the pending case until Olive Grove is served and able to officially respond, she called the allegations "baseless" in a phone interview with the Sun.

"We have not seen the complaint apparently filed by former employee Dawn Wilson," Mudge wrote in an official statement, "but at this time the school anticipates vigorously defending the lawsuit and proving the allegations baseless."

Olive Grove Charter School has been involved in various controversies within the past several years.

In October 2015, two former teachers claimed at a public meeting that they had been laid off months earlier after voicing objections about the school budget, several new hires that were allegedly made without board approval, and what they deemed to be a lack of transparency during the then ongoing accreditation process. The teachers said their opinions were in direct opposition to those of Mudge, and for that reason, they and a similarly vocal administrator were let go.

Around that same time, three of Olive Grove's board members resigned. One cited stress-related health reasons and the contentious staffing turnover, another said he started seeing things that were "inappropriate," and another stepped down after his criminal financial history came to light.

Olive Grove is also in the midst of an ongoing battle with local school districts that were recently ordered by the State Board of Education to pay the charter hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to help it operate.

The Santa Ynez Valley Union High School District has been particularly vocal about not being able to pay the charter school, and its superintendent said at a Jan. 15 board meeting that the projected costs of helping fund Olive Grove could eventually lead the district to insolvency.




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