Former Bear Creek principal sues for $2 million

Matt Montoya accuses Bend-La Pine of discrimination

By Tyler Leeds / The Bulletin

Matt Montoya, who was fired from his position as Bear Creek Elementary principal Sept. 10, has sued Bend-La Pine Schools for $2 million, accusing the district of age and race discrimination and the denial of due process .

Montoya filed the lawsuit Feb. 4 in U.S. District Court in Eugene. After three years as Bear Creek’s principal, Montoya was placed on paid administrative leave June 24. While the board reviewed Superintendent Ron Wilkinson’s recommendation to terminate based on Montoya’s failure to complete required staff observations, Montoya filed a complaint with the board against the district, citing race and age discrimination.

The board suspended its evaluation of Montoya’s personnel status until it investigated the discrimination claim, which on Aug. 22 the board ruled was without merit.

Montoya was fired a few weeks later. Initially, he filed an appeal with the Oregon Department of Education’s Fair Dismissal Appeals Board, which reviews contested dismissals. Montoya’s North Bend-based lawyer, Loren W. Collins, said his client has withdrawn that appeal.

Montoya’s suit reiterates the claims of discrimination, stating “the District’s recommendation for termination … constituted unlawful discrimination based upon age and race, (and) were in retaliation for (Montoya’s) opposition to unlawful discrimination and assertion of his legal rights.” The filings note Montoya was “the youngest and only Hispanic principal employed by the district” based on available information and that he is the first principal to be fired in 20 years.

Court documents also claim the district failed to follow policy in issuing its dismissal and that Montoya “was treated differently than similarly situated District employees.” The documents note Montoya “never received any type of disciplinary action, and was never placed on a Program of Assistance for Improvement.”

Montoya did not return a request for comment, but Collins said, “The complaint sets forth Mr. Montoya’s position in this matter, and he has no other comment at this time.”

Wilkinson said he was “surprised” by Montoya’s decision to withdraw his appeal from the Fair Dismissal Appeals Board.

“We obviously had invested a lot in terms of attorney fees and preparation to defend our action at that level,” Wilkinson said. “We felt the outcome of that hearing would have been to prove our dismissal of him had been handled in a fair and proper manner. I think their complaint misrepresents the facts of the situation, but we will determine that in court now.”

Wilkinson was unable to specify the amount spent on attorney fees and declined to comment on specific allegations.

Board Chairwoman Cheri Helt emphasized the care with which the board investigated Montoya’s initial accusations of discrimination.

“The board conducted a thoughtful and thorough investigation into the allegations presented by Mr. Montoya,” Helt said. “The board was satisfied there was no discrimination on the part of Bend-La Pine Schools.”

Bend-La Pine Schools has liability insurance for legal expenses through Property and Casualty Coverage for Education, a nonprofit set up by the Oregon School Boards Association and the Special Districts Association.

Some new allegations to emerge from court documents include that the district “destroyed evidence” that would have bolstered Montoya’s defense, including Montoya’s electronic calendar and district employee communications involving Montoya.

The documents also questioned the impartiality of the school board, claiming board members displayed “general animosity” toward Montoya, including “rolling their eyes” at him.

Board members are also accused of “playing and texting on their cell phones” during a presentation by Montoya.

Helt disputed these claims, saying “board members conducted themselves with the utmost integrity throughout the entire process.”

Helt declined to answer further questions.

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, tleeds@bendbulletin.com