A former nutrition supervisor at Sussex Tech is suing the district after he says he was wrongfully terminated for reporting the purchase of video equipment out of the school's food account.
John Gary Woody worked for seven years as a nutrition supervisor for Sussex Tech, with 23 years of experience. He said he consistently received excellent reviews, and he received no reprimands or disciplinary actions. Through sound management and fiscal decisions, Woody said, the cafeteria account had more than $500,000 in 2013.
At the same time, the Sussex Tech School District was encountering financial difficulties because of decreasing revenues. Woody said his position should have been immune to the district's financial woes because the state pays 70 percent of his salary and the remaining 30 percent was covered by money generated from food sales.
In October 2013, Woody said he was contacted by federal and state auditors about the removal of funds from the cafeteria account. Auditors said more than $8,000 was removed; Woody said Principal John Demby purchased televisions and audio equipment for the cafeteria.
Woody said he worked with auditors in a protected whistleblower capacity to resolve the misappropriated funds.
“Any purchase made out of the account must be for child nutrition. They would have had to use the televisions to show only information on child nutrition in order for it to be a legitimate expense. Instead, they used the TVs for sports and other shows,” Woody said.
When administrators realized that Woody had been involved with the audit of funds, he said, his work relationships changed.
Woody said a proposed purchase for the cafeteria was refused, and he endured negative comments from administrators.
Four months after speaking with auditors, Woody said, his job was terminated. Assistant Superintendent Curt Bunting told him the district did not have enough money to pay him, even though, Woody said, his position is funded differently from teachers and administrators.
Woody said Sussex Tech officials retaliated against him for reporting mismanagment of funds by terminating his employment.
“Defendants nonrenewed plaintiff's contract in retaliation for his protected acts in violation of the Delaware Whistleblowers' Protection Act,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit, filed in 2014, asks a jury for back pay, attorney's fees, a reinstatement of his position as child nutrition supervisor with a 10-year contract and pay until he is reinstated. The lawsuit also asks Sussex Tech to expunge Woody's records relating to his termination and other relief the court deems appropriate.
In its response, Sussex Tech denied most allegations in the lawsuit. The district acknowledged Woody was an employee who had received favorable evaluations and that the cafeteria account was profitable prior to 2014.
However, Tech's response states parents, students, administrators and the school board were concerned about the quality of food served.
“Plaintiff was aware of these concerns but resisted change,” Tech's response reads. “Costs associated with addressing these concerns predictably eliminated the profitability of the child nutrition services operation, and it was not profitable in fiscal year 2014.”
Tech also admits there was a review of expenditures out of the child nutrition account, but the review team disagreed with Tech's rationale for using child nutrition services money for the expenditures.
“The district believed they were correct but recoded 100 percent of technology purchase,” court papers state.
School board President Patrick Cooper would not comment on the lawsuit because it is a personnel issue.
On Nov. 16, Tech asked Superior Court Judge Jan Jurden for summary judgement on all counts. An argument for summary judgement will be held Jan. 25, 2016, with both sides attending.
A jury trial remains scheduled for April 11, 2016.