School board member denies using racial slur Former superintendent charges bias in suit

June 22, 1996|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

A Somerset County school board member, who is being sued on the grounds of racial discrimination by former county superintendent H. DeWayne Whittington, denied yesterday in federal court in Baltimore that he used a racial epithet to describe Whittington.

John L. Ent, Jr., former chairman of the county school board, chuckled when asked if he ever told Michelle Puritt, a reporter for the Crisfield Times, a newspaper in Somerset County, he was opposed to Whittington as superintendent because he didn't want a "nigger" running the schools. "I am not going to say that to a reporter I barely know," he quipped.

Puritt testified Wednesday that Ent made the statement in an interview in 1988, when he was running for the school board.

Whittington, the first African-American to head a school district on the Eastern Shore, is suing the all-white county school board that fired him in 1992 for nearly $350,000 in back pay and benefits.

He filed the suit in 1994, two years after the school board voted 3-2 against renewing his four-year contract. He was superintendent from 1988 to 1992.

The board, Chairman Ted Abbott and member Anna M. Taylor are also named in the suit.

Whittington claims his troubles began after the 1989 election of several new board members, which included the defendants, the suit said.

"Dr. Whittington made a point of getting into schools and getting to know the names of staff and students," said Andrew Freeman, Whittington's lawyer. "He was firm on discipline and firm on people doing their job, but he did not receive the treatment he deserved from the board, simply because of his race."

The defense claims that Whittington was dismissed because of his management style, citing his approval of the purchase of $250,000 computers without board approval or formal bidding. Whittington said he approved the purchase to take advantage of a $17,000 discount. He agreed he made a mistake in not seeking the board's approval, but said the incident was never mentioned until after he filed the suit.

He told jurors no one ever complained to him before he was ousted from his post.

Whittington testified Thursday: "If the Board of Education had given me any indication they were dissatisfied with my direction, I would not be here today."

But Ent testified yesterday that board members, including himself, were "ballistic" upon receiving a purchase order for the computers Whittington ordered.

The defense also claims that they did not agree with his aggressive leadership style or his discipline policy of not calling police about school fights. They also did not feel he had acted aggressively enough to improve the county's low test scores on state exams.

In addition, the board was displeased with Whittington after the settlement of a sex discrimination lawsuit filed against him over an appointment.

Pub Date: 6/22/96

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