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Apology is a good start

December 10, 2011
Editorial by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise: Publisher Catherine Moore, Managing Editor Peter Crowley

Lake Placid Central School District Superintendent Randy Richards took a step in the right direction Friday by apologizing, in a letter sent to all district staff members, for using a terribly offensive slur for women to describe the female faculty of Lake Placid Elementary School.

It's not quite enough, it's 10 months after the incident, and it was only issued under extreme community pressure. It doesn't change a gender-discrimination claim against Mr. Richards, and it won't convince all taxpayers, parents and school employees that Mr. Richards is fit to retain his job. Still, it's an encouraging start. The "better late than never" cliche holds true here.

Mr. Richards admits he called elementary school teachers "bitches" in a meeting with middle-high school Principal Katherine Mulderig on Feb. 3. He was trying to transfer her to the elementary school, saying he needed her there because she was "even bitchier" than the female faculty.

Article Photos

Randy Richards, superintendent, Lake Placid Central School District
(Enterprise file photo)

What a horrible stereotype to use against women. To find such traits in an educator and a top public manager is inexcusable. Educators are supposed to teach children to respect each other and not to call each other names.

In a May 2 hearing on Ms. Mulderig's gender-discrimination complaint to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Richards admitted he called the women that name and said he was surprised they'd be offended by it. Wow - it's pretty stunning to hear that from any kind of manager in 2011. Apparently he was either clueless, misogynistic or warped from watching way too much "Mad Men."

Now, thankfully, according to his letter Friday, he understands how offensive that term is to women. It's been a hard way to learn the lesson.

There's more. Ms. Mulderig insists he told her he wanted a man, "a real ball-buster," in her position at the middle-high school. He denied this in the May hearing.

It has been established, however, that he told her, and wrote in her evaluation, that she was "under a microscope" and had to be extra "cautious" because she was the middle-high school's first female principal. That's a classic double standard. The fact that Ms. Mulderig is a woman does not mean she has to be more careful than a male principal would. All managers should know that.

We hope the school board is now stepping up to its responsibility to manage the district's managers.

We sympathize with the board members. They don't get paid to do this, they don't know all the ins and outs of the schools because they don't work there, and this was an incredibly thorny situation to have dumped in their laps. But still, the school district is owned by the people, who need their elected representatives to ultimately be in charge. The buck stops with the board.

It didn't have to come to a public imbroglio. Ms. Mulderig didn't go straight to the EEOC. Under federal Title VII law, gender-discrimination complaints should be directed to one's supervisor, but since she was claiming her supervisor as the culprit, she reported Mr. Richards' treatment of her to his overseer, the school board - namely, board President Phil Baumbach - way back on Feb. 18. She says the board washed its hands of the matter, so she filed a grievance with the EEOC on March 7.

"They told me that it was between me and Dr. Richards and since then have not acknowledged or addressed me in any way," Mulderig said. "Everything has been between the attorneys, and I did not want it to go that way."

Maybe board members did do some investigation at the time; the public doesn't know because the board is maintaining a wall of silence that is angering local residents. Yes, public officials often keep silent about personnel issues out of fear of lawsuits and concern for privacy, but in this case it only serves to keep their side of the story away from a community that already knows enough to form strong opinions.

The best way to keep an issue like this quiet is to deal with it right away and not let it fester. If the board had immediately held Mr. Richards accountable for whatever he said and did - and if he had apologized then - this wouldn't be in the newspaper.

The cover-up is almost always worse than the offense.

Maybe Mr. Richards only said foolish, offensive things in a single private conversation (albeit a professional one), or maybe it's a pattern of behavior, as Ms. Mulderig's lawyer is trying to establish. Our reporters are looking into that, and board members need to do likewise. If it's a pattern, the board will probably have to remove him from his $125,000-a-year job. If it's an isolated incident, perhaps it merely deserves some internal penalty in addition to his welcome apology.

The board should consult some faculty, staff and parents on that decision, though, because this has become a confidence issue, especially for the district's female employees. Excellent women work for the Lake Placid Central School District as teachers, staff and administrators. Keeping them is essential, but the longer the board lets this thing drag out, the less welcome those women will feel. If they leave, it will be a huge blow to the children and adults of this community - a far worse outcome than whatever the board members were afraid of.

 
 

 

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