RARITAN TWP., NJ – Hunterdon Central High School’s former Athletic Director has filed a five-count lawsuit against the school district in federal District Court.
In the suit, Michael Raymond claims the school board either turned his job into a political patronage position, or retaliated against those “who were not politically connected to their political organizations.”
The suit, filed by attorney Ronald J. Ricci of the Totowa-based Ricci & Fava law firm, also names school board President Vincent Panico; Vice President Lori Blutfield (which is also spelled Blotfield in the suit) and board members Lisa Hughes, Robert McNally, Robert Richard, Christopher Sobieski and Karen Palestin-Falk.
The suit also names “unknown public entities” and John Does. The unnamed individuals “were and are police officer(s),” the suit states.
The suit claims violations of Raymond’s First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights and seeks monetary and “other relief.”
Raymond, who lives in Union Township (Hunterdon County), was hired by the school in 1995 as a health and physical education teacher and is tenured. He was promoted to Supervisor of Athletics in 2015, a title he kept until June of last year.
Evaluations of Raymond’s performance by former Acting School Superintendent Dr. Johanna Ruberto and current Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Moore were favorable. In 2017, school Principal Suzanne Cooley wrote Raymond was “effective in the manner in which he communicates the goals of the athletic program to constituencies,” was “well prepared” and had “sound knowledge of the clearance process” and “eligibility requirements,” the suit states.
The favorable evaluations led Moore to recommend Raymond’s contract as Athletic Director be renewed for the 2018-2019 school year, and in April the school board voted 6-0 to accept the recommendation.
But the school board called a special meeting a few weeks later, the suit states, and by a vote of 7-2 rescinded Raymond’s renewal.
When Raymond sought explanations for the reversal, the suit states that the board responded that it was based on “insufficient training, implementation, and communication” of New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association rules and policies.
The board also cited Raymond’s “poor communication and/or implementation regarding student-athlete evaluations, tryout processes, policies on academic conflicts, and how cuts are handled across different sports.” It claimed “student-athlete contracts” were not uniformly implemented and that he had “poor communication with parents, student-athletes and coaches, and insufficient communication processes for the benefit of student-athletes and parents.”
The claims seem at odds with Raymond’s evaluations, which also said he was “highly effective in building strong relationships with key Hunterdon Central and external personnel,” was “patient” and “respectful” with parents and was “sincere” and showed “genuine interest in ensuring parents and students have a positive experience,” according to the suit.
“There is no basis in fact for the reasons given for Raymond’s non-renewal of contract,” the suit claims.
The suit does acknowledge that many players and their parents disagreed with his decisions over the years. Some of the unhappy parents “are significantly involved in the local politics of the municipalities which send their children to Hunterdon Central.” School board members ignored the advice of “trained educators ... because they were concerned only with advancing themselves politically in the eyes of the people who select the candidates for the elected positions in their municipalities,” the suit alleges. Because Raymond “refused to get involved in local politics or contribute money to the local candidates,” board members retaliated, it states.
The suit seeks compensatory damages for pain, suffering, past economic loss, future economic loss, back pay, front pay, wage increases, loss of life’s pleasures, loss of reputation, benefits, emotional distress and physical manifestations of emotional distress. It also seeks punitive damages and reimbursement for attorney’s fees.
Nancy Tucker, Hunterdon Central High School's public information officer, said in a statement that, "The district does not comment on matters of litigation."