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Teacher, 49, accuses Williamsville schools of age discrimination

Three times Cheryl Callahan applied for teaching jobs in Williamsville Central School District, and three times she lost out on the jobs to people she said were younger and less qualified.

Each time, Callahan contends, district officials either offered no explanation for hiring someone else or manufactured a reason to reject her. She said the Heim Elementary School's principal once said Callahan wasn't suitable because she saw her "sitting" in a classroom and later said Callahan had received a poor reference from another school district, allegations that Callahan disputed and that led to a complaint to the state Division of Human Rights.

"Cheryl Callahan was the more-qualified candidate," Marc Shatkin, Callahan's attorney, wrote to the division. Callahan declined to comment on her case.

The human rights agency found "no probable cause" that she was a victim of age discrimination. Now, the 49-year-old Lackawanna woman is suing the district, accusing Williamsville and some of its administrators of age discrimination.

Callahan last month filed a claim in State Supreme Court asking a judge to overturn the agency's decision. She also named the Williamsville district, Heim Principal Bonnie Stafford and Heim Assistant Administrator Ron Perry as parties to the claim, known as an Article 78.

Experts said lawsuits alleging age or other discrimination in hiring by school districts are unusual.

Representatives for the division and the district said they couldn't comment on a pending legal matter. However, the district issued several statements to the division defending its hiring process.

"The employer's hiring decisions were in no way based on age, but rather were based on the qualifications of the applicants. On each occasion, a more-qualified applicant was hired for the position," Luisa D. Bostick, the district's outside counsel, wrote in March.

Applied three times

Callahan said she initially applied for a full-time position at Heim Elementary when she was 46 and was a candidate twice more for a job within the next 18 months.

Callahan's account is based on her lawsuit and her filings with the state. The district's version comes from its responses to the division.

Callahan said she had 11 years of experience as a full-time, part-time and substitute teacher. Her experience included work as a long-term substitute special education teacher and part-time teacher at Heim.

The district, however, said Callahan had only four years of relevant experience teaching in a classroom and that she had never taught full time in a public or BOCES school, as other candidates had.

The district's attorney said Stafford, in supervising Callahan, had concluded she was qualified as a substitute teacher but would not make a "high-performing" permanent, full-time teacher.

Shatkin, Callahan's attorney, objected to this poor review from Stafford, saying the district had found her "highly effective" in previous reviews and changed its opinion after the discrimination complaint was filed to provide after-the-fact justification for declining to hire her.

Callahan first sought a full-time teaching position at Heim around September 2016. She said a four-person committee at Heim reviewed applications for the position and that a number of her fellow teachers at Heim urged its members to hire her.

She said she was one of two finalists for the job. The other finalist, Callahan said, was younger, had less experience and had not completed her master's degree. The district hired the younger candidate even though no one contacted her references, Callahan says.

Then, in January 2018, this new teacher resigned and the school set up a six-person committee to find a replacement. Callahan, now 47, applied again.

Callahan said she again was a finalist for the position, along with someone younger than 40. Just before the committee voted on which candidate it favored, Callahan alleges, Stafford told committee members she preferred the younger candidate because she had once seen Callahan "sitting."

Callahan questioned this statement because, she said, the Heim principal never formally observed her in the classroom that year. The district said Stafford saw Callahan sitting at her desk in front of her computer every time the principal walked by Callahan's classroom and never saw her directly engaging with students.

The Heim committee again selected the younger candidate, Callahan said, but this candidate turned down the job.

Callahan contends that Heim has a policy that, if a candidate turns down a job offer, the committee offers the job to the runner-up. Instead, Callahan said, she did not receive an offer.

By March 2018, the committee reconvened to fill two full-time openings at Heim. Callahan, now 48, applied one more time and, again, was one of two finalists for the positions, along with someone younger than 40. The committee also selected a backup candidate.

The committee unanimously decided to hire Callahan, she alleges. The district, for its part, contended the committee was split between Callahan and another finalist for one of the jobs.

Stafford broke the tie after saying the other candidates had glowing references, while Callahan had a negative reference from a Hamburg elementary school employee who expressed concerns about Callahan's "lack of motivation, limited interactions with other staff members and teamwork."

Callahan, in her lawsuit, contends Heim representatives never contacted this reference and, in fact, Callahan later received a position in Hamburg. But Williamsville's Human Resources Department agreed with Stafford's recommendation.

No discrimination found

Callahan filed her complaint with the state Division of Human Rights in February, arguing age discrimination was the only explanation for the district's repeated refusal to hire her.

The division, in its August report, focused on the final job opportunity sought by Callahan, the only one that happened within the 12 months prior to Callahan filing her complaint.

Division officials noted the district originally had required K-12 special education teaching certification but changed this provision to "preferred" to expand the potential pool of applicants.

Records show 15 candidates were interviewed, and the district told the agency it hired the two "most-qualified" teachers based on their educational and teaching backgrounds, the interview and their references. Evidence shows the three finalists all met the minimum qualifications for the position, the agency reported.

The district "provided a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for not selecting complainant for the positions, which is not related to age," the division reported in dismissing Callahan's complaint.

Editors' Picks

Nearly every applicant for a teaching position is at least minimally qualified for the job, so in deciding who to hire, districts have to standardize their process, document everything they do and make sure they can justify their final decision, said Thomas Ramming, who teaches educational leadership and policy in the University at Buffalo's Graduate School of Education.

Ramming, a former assistant superintendent of human resources in Williamsville schools, said districts typically start with a formal posting for an open position generated with input from the school principal and guided by language in the union contract.

The School Board makes the final decision, based on the recommendation of the superintendent, who has received input from human resources and the school principal. Ramming said districts must consider genuine occupational qualifications such as professional certifications, classroom experience and references.

Districts usually conduct interviews as well, though Ramming said he found the interview to be the least valuable part of the process. Far better, he said, is observing prospective teachers in a mock classroom setting.

Lawsuits aren't common

The principal typically checks references, and Ramming created a form for them to use. The document, vetted by legal counsel, ensured consistency in what was – and wasn't – asked.

"As soon as you deviate from the norm, you open yourself up to a lawsuit. 'Why did you treat me differently?' " said Ramming, speaking generally and not about this case.

Ramming said the Williamsville district was facing a federal age discrimination lawsuit at the time he was hired as assistant superintendent in the 1990s.

An unsuccessful candidate for a teaching position alleged that one district employee said to another, "We really need somebody younger for the job."

"And that was factual. They had said that to each other. And they were on the interview committee. And one of the women who was not hired was over 40," Ramming said. "And we ended up paying her just shy of a hundred thousand dollars to drop her claim against the district."

Jay Worona, general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association, said such lawsuits aren't common. When reached for comment, he said this was the first time in his 35 years with the agency that a reporter has raised the topic with him.

He said it's difficult for prospective teachers to prove that a district discriminated against them in the hiring process.

"If you're interviewing for a job, there's a whole host of reasons you may not get that job," Worona said.

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