Judge to decide if Machiasport principal lost job over budget crisis or controversy

Posted Feb. 07, 2012, at 5:43 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A federal judge will decide whether the former principal at Fort O’Brien School in Machiasport was illegally fired in 2008 or was let go because of budget constraints.

Patricia A. Godin, 59, of Trescott Township claims the Machiasport School Department used the loss of state funding as an excuse to fire her after members of the community complained to the school board in April 2008 and accused her of physically abusing two students. The district claims the decision was based solely on economics and an anticipated loss of $300,000 in state funding.

An investigation into the abuse allegations by a Portland lawyer cleared Godin of any wrongdoing, according to court documents.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen began hearing evidence Tuesday in the lawsuit Godin filed in 2009 against her former employer. Neither Godin’s attorney, Sandra Collier of Ellsworth, nor Melissa Hewey of Portland, who represents the school district, opted to give opening statements in the jury-waived trial.

Collier, however, did tell the judge after Hewey objected to one of her questions to Godin that her client was “crucified by a mob driven by the actions of one of the teachers she had critically evaluated.”

The “mob” Collier referred to was the more than 60 people who showed up at the April 2008 board meeting. Godin testified Tuesday that just one person accused her of abuse. The others aired concerns about the safety changes she had implemented that did not allow parents access to classrooms whenever they liked and complaints from staff and teachers about her leadership style.

The principal was placed on paid administrative leave after that meeting, then was formally let go in June, according to court documents.

Godin testified that she was hired in 2006 to work at the school as three-fourths time principal and one-fourth time teacher for the gifted and talented program. She signed a two-year contract.

The goals set for her by the school board included improving test scores and implementing teacher evaluations. In March 2008, she signed a new three-year contract. Her salary in the 2008-2009 school year was to have been about $55,000, according to court documents.

“Everyone was welcoming and polite, but at the same time a bit guarded and a little suspicious of me,” Godin said when asked by her attorney how she was received at the school.

Godin testified that she had been working on a budget reduction plan and attended the contentious April 2008 meeting to discuss it. She said she was “blindsided” by the crowd and what happened afterward. Godin testified that she suffered from depression and insomnia for more than a year after losing her job and broke up with her domestic partner after they had been together for nearly two decades.

Since her position was eliminated, Godin said Tuesday, she has applied for 90 jobs in her field and had 17 interviews but no job offers.

She is seeking more than $260,000 in damages, according to court documents.

Testimony is scheduled to continue through Friday. Torresen, who is presiding over her first trial since becoming a federal judge in October, is expected to issue a written decision later in the month.

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