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Superintendent named in lawsuit

William Ferchland

A lawsuit, with Lake Tahoe Unified School District Superintendent James Tarwater named as one of the defendants, claims he did not sufficiently quash a rumor that a principal who worked in his former district had exchanged sexual favors for school funding.

The lawsuit is headed for court July 21 in Orange County.

Tarwater, chosen in May to head LTUSD, was named in the lawsuit stemming from his time as head of Ocean View School District in Huntington Beach.

Also named in the suit, filed in May, was Ocean View School District Board of Trustees and board member Barbara Boskovich.

Harbour View Elementary School Principal Roni Ellis and her husband are the plaintiffs, seeking damages for what they believe was sexual harassment causing a hostile work environment, defamation and invasion of privacy.

The lawsuit stated that in September 2004, Boskovich visited Ellis at her school office voicing disappointment the principal didn’t support her re-election bid to the board.

In the same meeting, Boskovich mentioned a circulating rumor that Ellis traded sexual favors with Tarwater for facility funding, according to the lawsuit.

The rumor continued, with allegations Boskovich spread them herself at a school lounge and a party. Newspapers such as the Orange County Register and Huntington Beach Independent picked up the story, covering it several times.

Reached at home, Roni Ellis said the past school year has been “very, very difficult.” A formal, public apology by Boskovich along with support and immediate denial of the rumor by Tarwater would have been enough to avoid the lawsuit, Ellis said.

“I appreciated (Tarwater’s) support for many years and his leadership style, but what happened in the last couple of years was a change (for) him,” Ellis said.

Ellis said she received a letter of apology signed by Boskovich. Ellis believed it was a phony, written by Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Michael Luker.

Acting on advice from the board, Luker said he did draft a sample letter for Boskovich but did not see the final product.

Relations between Ellis and Boskovich chilled in 1999 when Ellis voiced support for a Wal-Mart to be constructed on leased district property. Boskovich, against the decision, ran and won a seat on the school board the following year.

Boskovich denied spreading the rumors and was tight-lipped on the litigation.

“I’m not going to comment on the lawsuit,” Boskovich said. “I can just say I feel it’s politically motivated and that’s it. I don’t know what the reason is.”

Ellis’ husband, David, chief of Long Beach Fire Department, is also seeking damages by being “subjected to humiliation, ridicule, taunts and embarrassment” caused by the rumor, the lawsuit stated.

David Ellis said the floating rumor and lack of responsibility in handling it “would never be allowed in our organization.”

The district and Tarwater’s attorney, Gary Gibeaut, doesn’t believe Tarwater should have been named in the suit. Gibeaut said Tarwater hired two separate attorneys: one to conduct an internal investigation of the complaint and another which found that the claim of sexual harassment did not meet California legal requirements.

“Jim is not accused of saying or doing anything inappropriate,” Gibeaut said.

The issue will be heard in the central district of Orange County Superior Court on July 21 along with Gibeaut’s motion to dismiss the claims.

In an interview a week after he joined the district, Tarwater said he believed the matter was finished soon after it was raised. He said when he heard about the rumor, he spoke to Boskovich.

“She apologized and that was it,” he said. “I thought it was over.”

Tarwater described himself as a victim. Roni Ellis also echoed that label.

“You know the hard thing of it is?” Tarwater asked. “When something goes like that, if you do anything, that’s a change in the norm. You’ll get sued for retaliation.

“The bad thing about superintendents,” he continued, “is when you move, then everybody wants to explore what they call the ‘baggage.'”

Several Lake Tahoe Unified School District board members said they looked into the rumors and found nothing incriminating to deter them from hiring Tarwater.

Barbara Bannar, who traveled to Huntington Beach with fellow board member Doug Forte to interview district personal, knew of the rumor. While interviewing trustees on Tarwater, she said she encountered the strong personalities on the board that helped instigate the situation.

“Once we met the people involved I could totally see this board member saying what she allegedly said and she admitted it,” Bannar said.

“It just seemed to be all about them rather than the kids,” she added.

Board President Wendy David agreed the lawsuit was not a hindrance in hiring Tarwater.

“All our concerns or questions were answered,” she said.

– E-mail William Ferchland at wferchland@tahoedailytribune.com


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