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Dispute swirls; principal to retire

SHARE Dispute swirls; principal to retire

LEHI — After 29 years in the education field — the last six months of which were spent dealing with a rift between parents and a basketball coach that led to a defamation lawsuit — Lehi High School Principal Sheldon Worthington is retiring.

Worthington found himself at the center of a contentious dispute between parents and former girls basketball coach Mike O'Connor that led to the eventual firing of the coach, the transfer of 3A's 2004 Most Valuable Player Michelle Harrison to Mountain View High, and a defamation lawsuit filed by O'Connor against Worthington and more than two dozen parents.

Worthington in December announced his plans to retire at the end of the school year.

The announcement came just before he was dismissed from O'Connor's lawsuit, which asks that the former coach be awarded $1.5 million from each defendant.

The principal said the lawsuit — and controversy that preceded it — did "not directly have to do with" his decision to retire.

"We're making the switch from 3A to 4A, we just completed the accreditation process last year, my youngest daughter is graduating and heading to college — I just thought it was time," he said. "I've given my heart and soul to the job, and I feel like I've been able to accomplish a lot. Now, it's time for something else."

He said he was not surprised when he was dismissed from the lawsuit last month.

"I expected it from the very beginning," said Worthington, who plans to start his own company with several business associates. "It's just an annoyance I don't have to deal with, although I could be pulled back in at a later date."

O'Connor's attorney, Joseph Rust, said the decision to dismiss Worthington was due in large part to a state law that grants substantial immunity to public officials when they are acting in their official capacity. Rust said his client believes Worthington participated in spreading untrue and defamatory statements about O'Connor.

"The question is: 'Was (Worthington) working in his capacity as principal or as an individual?' We just don't have enough information yet," Rust said.

Worthington is scheduled to be deposed on Friday, Rust said. Many of the parents were also supposed to be deposed, but that was canceled and there was talk of them appealing the judge's decision to let the lawsuit proceed.

No appeal has been filed yet in Provo's 4th District Court.

One set of parents has already cooperated some with Rust, and they could be deposed soon after Worthington.

"This process is just getting started," Rust said. "It was a technical termination, not because of merits or because he didn't do it."

For Worthington it's a bit of breathing room during a year that has been stifling at times.

He began mediating the problems between parents and O'Connor last spring.

Over the summer, a group of parents pushed for O'Connor's ouster. They also threatened legal action and requested his removal at a meeting with Alpine's Board of Education.

The squabble worsened until Worthington opted not to renew the coach's contract, essentially firing him. He responded with the lawsuit, and then the team's star player, Harrison, transferred to Mountain View, and Worthington participated in two highly publicized transfer hearings.

Still, Worthington said he wasn't forced out or even asked to quit.

"I've received no pressure of any kind from anywhere," Worthington said. "I've had lots of cards and letters expressing appreciation for what I've done. It's been very gratifying. The district and (Lehi) have been very, very supportive. I've loved what I've done, and I want to leave education on my own terms. I wanted to leave while I still love it and enjoy it."

E-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com