Lawsuit against DCCCD over free speech violations and gender discrimination ends

The Richland Chronicle

May 11, 2011

Image Matilda Saenz

A federal lawsuit involving Mountain View College President Dr. Felix A. Zamora and former Vice President if Instruction Dr. Matilda Saenz has come to a close after a nearly year-long court battle.

The Dallas County Community College District Board of Trustees approved a settlement agreement in the case of Dr. Matilda Saenz v. DCCCD in the April 5 board meeting.

The board went into executive session to discuss the agreement with the district’s attorney, Robert Young. When they reconvened in open meeting, the board voted to approve the settlement. The details of the agreement have not been published for public record.

Saenz could not discuss the terms of the agreement due to “rules of confidentiality” and she would not comment on the specifics of the case.

However, she did say that she is looking for “re-employment in higher education administration.”

Saenz was hired to MVC in 2004 and she filed the suit against the district on April 13, 2010, less than three weeks after Zamora suspended her.

The suit was filed in response to Zamora, who allegedly made “efforts to damage and/or harm Plaintiff’s leadership and competence and to continually retaliate, harass, and/or otherwise cause harm to Plaintiff in every way he possibly could,” according to the Plaintiff’s Original Complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas.  Zamora has been MVC’s president since 2004 and he is currently chairing the search for Richland College’s president.

According to the complaint, she sued the district “for federal and state constitutional and/or statutory violations, for breach of contract, and under the Federal Declaratory Judgment Act.”Of the claims filed, Saenz accuses Zamora of violating her freedom of speech and due process, and of discriminating her because of her sex.

Zamora and Dr. Wright Lassiter, chancellor of DCCCD, both did not respond to phone calls and messages left at their offices.

Saenz and all five instructional deans of MVC sent Zamora an electronic memorandum “regarding fiduciary concerns and the potential impact on student learning” which would result from a proposed 2.5 percent budget cut for the budgets of each academic division” in addition to a reduction of $150,000 directed by the Vice President of Business Services for Mountain View, Sharon Davis, according to the Factual Background in the complaint.

Lassiter was copied on the memorandum, which was sent on May 26, 2009. Upon receiving the memorandum, Zamora called and left a message asking Saenz to call him back. Saenz was out of town at the time attending the closing ceremonies for the National Institute of Staff and Organizational Development conference in Austin.

When Saenz got in touch with Zamora, he reportedly called her and the other deans “hysterical” and said that her actions “bordered in insubordination.” As Zamora heard Saenz’s rationale for the memorandum, he yelled, “I don’t care.”

Later, in a meeting between the Vice President of Instruction Staff at Mountain View on June 3, 2009, the court documents say Zamora “acted unprofessionally and conducted himself in behavior unbecoming of a college president.” Soon after the meeting, Zamora gave Saenz a negative evaluation and placed her on a Performance Improvement Plan. Before this, Saenz had received exemplary evaluations for four full years.

In July, following the first graduation ceremony for the Instructional Administrative Institute, which Saenz chaired, her husband, Ruben, was told that his contract would not be renewed. On July 30, 2009, he received written notice of this news. The complaint suggests that the non-renewal of his contract came without warning suspiciously soon after the memorandum was sent to Zamora.

The complaint continues to say that Zamora retaliated against Saenz by denying her professional development opportunities which she was involved in the past (such as the annual Texas Association of Chicanos in Higher Education 2010 Conference), not preparing her for meetings by not providing agendas, and forcing her to send administrator-in-charge email notifications whenever she was out of the office sick or for a meeting.

Saenz filed a grievance against Zamora on Nov. 30, 2009 along with a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission “based upon perceived gender discrimination and other retaliatory actions taken by Zamora.” According to the Second Amended Complaint, on “November 16, 2009, Defendant’s Human Resources Department and Legal Counsel informed Plaintiff that she could not pursue this grievance…”.

Finally on March 26, 2010, Zamora informed Saenz that she was immediately suspended and that she was to remove all of her belongings and clear out of the school that day.

The district motioned for partial dismissal of three of Saenz’s claims and sent an answer to the Plaintiff’s First Amended Complaint.

DCCCD admitted that Zamora received the memorandum entitled “Budget Implications for Instruction at Mountain View College.” The district also admits that upon contacting Saenz, Zamora said that “Plaintiff’s actions ‘bordered on insubordination'” and he may have responded, “I don’t care” after hearing her rationale for the email. Zamora also indicated that the memorandum was “not appreciated.”

In response to the allegations of the termination Ruben Saenz’s contract, the district pointed out that “Plaintiff’s husband was an ‘at will’ District employee who was hired as a Program Grant Coordinator and classified as professional support staff.”

The district continues to say that Saenz did not attend professional development opportunities due to her “failure to observe appropriate procedures for attending such events” or because she chose not to attend the conferences.

DCCCD also admits that Saenz was reassigned to another position within the district on March 26, 2010.

Shortly before Saenz was informed that her contract would not be renewed, the faculty at Mountain View voted “no confidence” in Zamora on March 11, 2010.

In the document entitled “Summary of Grievances”, compiled by MVC’s faculty association, the claims include that “President Zamora has demonstrated a lack of respect and support… has serious and disruptive disagreement with the Vice President of Instruction…has taken retaliatory actions against faculty, staff, and administrators… [and his] management of the college budget lacks adequate planning and transparency and has adversely affected instruction.”

Mountain View College spokeswoman Marci Garrott told the Dallas Morning News in a March 16, 2009 article that some of the concerns date back to when Zamora was appointed president, while others have developed through time.

DCCCD spokeswoman Ann Hatch told the DMN that while there is no formal policy to address a “no confidence” vote, “the district’s chancellor, Dr. Wright Lassiter Jr., is confident that both President Felix Zamora and the faculty at Mountain View can address issues that concern those faculty members and implement steps to resolve them.”

Hatch was contacted by the Chronicle for comment on the issue, but she was unaware at the time if steps to resolve the concerns of the faculty had been taken.

Currently, Saenz is staying in south Texas with her husband and visiting her children when she can. She is working on several books about the educational challenges she’s encountered in her career.

Courtesy of the Richland Chronicle


About Lindsey Juarez

Being a reporter is like being a lighthouse. No, we're not old, white stiffs who are stuck in our ways. Rather, we have a purpose: to illuminate. Just as a lighthouse illuminates the sea, we shed light on the stories and information the public needs to know. We are not ship captains; our purpose is not to steer the news vessel. Instead, we guide it home. My name is Lindsey Juarez, and I am a journalist with a passion for telling incredible stories. I have a love for writing and a nose for news. On this website, you will find some of my clips from college and professional newspapers. Enjoy! View all posts by Lindsey Juarez

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