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Former New Suffolk teacher brings lawsuit against district

Martha Kennelly

A tenured teacher who was employed for two decades by the New Suffolk Common School District until her position was cut last year, filed a federal lawsuit against district officials Monday claiming age discrimination.

Martha Kennelly, 53, claims in her suit, which was filed Monday in the Eastern District Court of New York, that she was the only teacher over the age of 40 working in the district and that school board president Tony Dill, along with former superintendent Michael Comanda, created a new tenure area as a way to discharge her “based on her age.”

She also alleges in her complaint that Mr. Comanda, who could not be immediately reached for comment, told her she was “too old, knew everything and was over-qualified” and to “stay off school grounds.”

Current principal Christopher Gallagher, who also could not be reached for comment, hired educators under the age of 40 following Ms. Kennelly’s discharge, the complaint states.

Ms. Kennelly is seeking back pay, front pay, compensatory damages for emotional distress, and general and special damages for lost compensation and job benefits, according to the complaint.

Cutchogue attorney Frank Blangiardo said his client’s case against the district is “very unfortunate.”

“Ms. Kennelly has really been affected by this — it’s a shame,” he said. “I don’t know where they were coming from — except to retaliate against poor Ms. Kennelly.”

The veteran teacher most recently worked as the district’s curriculum writer until the school board decided to abolish her position effective June 30, 2015.

At that time, Mr. Dill, who declined comment Wednesday, said the decision was needed in order to cover a budget gap caused by Ms. Kennelly’s sudden decision to return to the district from special assignment. She had been working for about 10 years at the Mid East Suffolk Teacher Center in Ridge. New Suffolk continued to pay her salary while she served at the center, but was reimbursed for that money by the state.

Her total pay in 2015 was $126,983, according The Empire Center’s SeeThroughNY database.

Teachers on special assignment at the center — which provides professional development, technology training and resources to Suffolk County educators — remain contracted faculty members in their home districts, enabling them to return to their previous jobs if desired, or if the center’s program encounters budget cuts.

Because Ms. Kennelly chose to end her special assignment and return to the school after a former head teacher resigned, the district was no longer being reimbursed for her salary, which would have contributed to a 21 percent decline in revenue and caused a $160,000 budget gap, Mr. Dill said at the time.

Ms. Kennelly, who couldn’t be immediately reached for comment, has maintained that the district was aware of her desire to return to the classroom and had asked school officials to inform her if any teachers stepped down. She has said they never did so before hiring a replacement for the head teacher.

Mr. Blangiardo previously represented special education teacher Anthony Claudio in a 2012 federal case claiming the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District discriminated against him based on his age and gender. In October 2012, an eight-member jury awarded Mr. Claudio $70,000 in back pay at the conclusion of a trial in which it found the district liable for age discrimination. The district was also ordered to reinstate Mr. Claudio following the court’s ruling.

The New Suffolk Common School District has about 18 students in its  pre-K through sixth-grade program. The district has about nine secondary students and sends them to Southold Jr./Sr. High School.

Mr. Blangiardo said a hearing on the Kennelly case has been scheduled for July 12.

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Photo: Martha Kennelly with her attorney, Frank Blangiardo, at the April 28 New Suffolk school board meeting. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo, file)