A $2 million wrongful termination lawsuit against the Landon School in Bethesda alleges that headmaster David Armstrong ignored reports that supervisors were discriminating against Hispanic employees.
Timothy Harrison, former chief financial officer and chief operating officer of the school, filed the suit Thursday in Montgomery County Circuit Court.
"The discrimination has been going on for 18 years," Harrison said. "It has to stop. I brought it to the attention of the headmaster who chose to do nothing about it."
Five Hispanic employees filed declarations with the Montgomery County Office of Human Rights on May 17, alleging discrimination by the building and grounds supervisor, and grounds foreman. They often get together to make fun of their workers in front of them, and called their workers ethnic slurs, according to the declarations.
Employees with fewer English skills reported more abuse, such as a maintenance worker who said working for the building and grounds supervisor was torture. He holds a different position at the school under a new supervisor.
“I often believe to a high degree of certainty that [the building and grounds supervisor] is insulting me to my face, but because I do not understand English, I cannot understand his insults,” according to his declaration. “Often, others later inform me of his disrespectful words.”
The lawsuit alleges that Harrison was fired for opposing discriminatory practices against Hispanic employees by the two supervisors, voicing his concern that the headmaster's new contract violates IRS rules about compensation for nonprofit employees, and that the school treasurer was endangering the schools' accreditation.
In a statement, Landon School denies Harrison's allegations, calling them inaccurate and misleading. After asking Armstrong for comment, school spokeswoman Jean Erstling referred The Gazette to the statement.
"The school has a longstanding commitment to treat all members of the community — employees, students, and others — fairly and without regard to race, ethnicity or gender," according to the statement. "Landon has policies and procedures in place that ensure that reports of improper behavior are considered promptly and fully, and appropriate actions are taken."
According to Harrison’s complaint, Harrison told Armstrong on multiple occasions that the buildings and grounds supervisor and grounds foreman treated their Hispanic employees in an abusive manner. His complaints were based on reports from his assistant, who was also mistreated. Harrison also reported the buildings and grounds supervisor’s alleged mistreatment of a black employee.
Harrison became concerned about Armstrong's compensation in November, after he learned it might violate IRS rules about excess benefits for nonprofit employees. Harrison hired a consultant, Hugh Mallon, chief executive officer of Executive Compensation Concepts, to compare Armstrong's proposed salary against other school heads. Armstrong's proposed compensation was $800,000, nearly twice as much as Potomac School head Geoffrey Jones, who earns $431,000, according to the complaint.
Mallon determined Armstrong was one of the top 10 highest compensated headmasters in the U.S., with a salary 150-170 percent higher than his peers, according to the complaint.
Harrison also told Armstrong he was concerned that the Landon School board treasurer Carter Hertzberg was inappropriately involved in school finances, which could endanger their accreditation with the Association of Independent Maryland & DC Schools.
On Friday, March 2, Harrison said he notified the Board of Trustees of all of his concerns.
"I was never allowed to return to work," he said.
The following Monday, he was placed on administrative leave but continues to receive his salary.
"The paperwork is all going to support the timeline of retaliation," said Harrison's attorney, Adam Augustine Carter, attorney with The Employment Law Group in Washington, D.C.
Harrison has 20 years of experience in operating and financial officer positions. He previously served as COO/CFO at Beauvoir, The National Cathedral Elementary School in Washington, D.C., from 2002 until 2010, and as COO/CFO at Calvert School and Home Instruction Department in Baltimore from 1991 to 2002.
At Landon School, Harrison oversaw eight departments, a position he held for a year and a half, before his contract was terminated. He was hired in July 2010 on a one-year contract, which was renewed the following year.