Demoted administrator thinks CUSD needs a civil- rights lesson

Chuck Sinatra, with 30 years of successful students, awards and commendations under his belt, has been stripped of his assistant-principal role at Chico High School and reassigned to teach five classrooms full of sophomore English students.

His attorney, Larry Baumbach of Chico, says that was not only unfair but illegal and a violation of Sinatra’s civil rights.

Sinatra last month filed a claim against the CUSD, alleging violations of the Education Code, Fair Employment Housing Act of California, Americans with Disabilities Act of California, the U.S. Constitution and other laws and statutes. He’s asking for damages including lost salary and retirement benefits.

Sinatra has long dealt with clinical depression. His claim states that the district’s action “forced Claimant to choose between his occupation and his health. The District’s conduct was deliberately intended to force Claimant out of his occupation because of Claimant’s disability.” Sinatra’s claim also alleges that the demands of his job largely contributed to his disability.

When Sinatra asked for accommodations for his illness, Baumbach said, “the district retaliated against him,” bumping him to a lower-paying job that it knew was not appropriate to his condition.

The first time Sinatra saw Chico High, while still an undergraduate at California State University, Los Angeles, he said, “I thought, ‘Boy, I’d love to teach there.'” In 1971, he got his wish. He mentored other teachers before being recruited to administration. He most recently handled curriculum and discipline. He was key to a task force working toward better high schools, and it was Sinatra who traveled to the White House to accept the school’s Blue Ribbon award for distinction.

Sinatra has been treated for depression for much of his life. “In my early years, I didn’t really know what it was,” he said. “For years, I learned to deal with it just by simple will or whatever.” He first saw doctors for stress in his 20s and over the years tried so many medications and experimental treatments that he felt like a “lab rat.” He took two years’ worth of medical leaves of absence over the years. Not long ago, he went to Sacramento to try electro-convulsive therapy.

“There are some people who are just happy all the time, whether they’re fat or lost their job. Some of us are not that way,” said Sinatra, who is 55 and believes his condition has worsened as he’s aged. “Depression is a complicated illness, really. Obviously, there is despair, just a lack of joy. And it affects the body in different ways.”

Still, he said, “I was there and doing my job,” helping teens, building the high school curriculum and meeting all deadlines. He’d get depressed, but not to the point where he felt he should take another leave. “I could have taken disability years ago,” he said, but, “I feel like working is important. Education and students is something that I have literally dedicated my life to. … I’d like to retire on my own terms.”

Several sources close to the school who wished to remain anonymous collectively related that Sinatra’s illness was indeed affecting his job performance. They said Sinatra randomly missed work, and when he was there he wasn’t always on top of his game. But the sources also confirmed that Sinatra is widely liked in the district and considered bright and sweet. The sentiment seemed to be sympathy toward his illness and finally frustration that it was affecting the workings of the school.

“The principal [Roger Williams] kept removing responsibilities because they were trying to phase me out,” Sinatra said. He asked for a less-stressful part-time administrative job.

Greg Einhorn, the CUSD’s attorney, said Sinatra was offered a part-time administrative job, but with a classroom component, which he turned down. “The job that he wanted did not exist,” Einhorn said, adding that the district felt Sinatra would do a good job teaching the English classes.

“The district, while acknowledging the claim, believes it has treated the employee, Chuck Sinatra, not only in a legally appropriate manner, but fairly as well,” Einhorn said.

The district has 45 days from when Sinatra’s claim was filed to answer it. If the claim is denied, Baumbach said, the parties will proceed to a full-fledged lawsuit.

“I don’t want to come off as a poster boy for depression,” Sinatra said. “I would hate to be defined by my condition.”

He says the claim is not about his illness, but rather, “I would expect that any employee in the district should be treated with respect and proper accord.

"I find it ironic that the district has spent years developing beliefs and behaviors that it wishes its students to follow and then fails to follow what may not only be morally and socially correct, but also legally correct."