When Hesperia Unified School District returned to session Jan. 9, among the new faces was one at the district's Main Street office. But Assistant Superintendent of Personnel Services Karen Kelly wasn't a new face, exactly: She had spent three years battling the district in court in an attempt to regain her job after, according to court documents, she said a climate of sexism cost her the position.


In November 2008, Kelly told HUSD officials about her relationship with an outside contractor. As a result, Kelly was suspended and then demoted twice in four months, along with a $60,000 cut in her salary. The school board voted to replace her with a man making more money. And the man she had been involved with while separated from her husband continued to work for the HUSD, serving as a public face for the district.


"The emotional distress has been horrendous," Kelly wrote in a May 20, 2011 declaration to the court. "HUSD has not only demoted me on more than one occasion and terminated my employment contract (causing significant emotional harm) but has sought to destroy my reputation in the community and essentially left me in a position where I cannot apply for employment because of the inexplicable 'demotions' and employment agreement termination."


The decision to affix a scarlet letter to her chest wasn't a unanimous one: The demotions were both 3-2 votes, with then-board members Hardy Black, Robert Kirk and Anthony Riley voting in favor of them and minority members Chris Bentley and Lee Rogers against them.


Behind closed doors, Bentley now the school board's president expressed concerns about how the district treated male and female employees differently.


Bentley had a 45-minute conversation on April Fools Day 2009 with one of the school board members who voted against Kelly both times, he said in a video-recorded deposition given in April 2011.


"He clearly articulated to me that this was a moral issue," Bentley said during his deposition, according to court records. "He, quote, felt that this Ms. Kelly's conduct was, you know, unbecoming an officer of our school district. And when I asked him, 'Well, what about (the man she was involved with)?' He said, 'Well, that's different.' And he never really clearly articulated where his differences were other than he did clearly in this phone conversation say that he was a Christian man with Christian values and that ... is what he based his decision on in this particular matter."


Bentley said he'd heard similar views aired by top district officials, who called Kelly's actions a "sin" but didn't express the same condemnation for the male involved.


Officially, the private lives of district employees is no one's business, according to HUSD Board Policy 4119.1(a): "The governing board believes that the personal life of an employee is not an appropriate concern of the district, except as it may directly relate to the employee's performance of his/her duties."


But according to court documents filed by her lawyers, male and female administrators are treated very differently by the Victor Valley's largest employer. Male counterparts, cited by name in court filings, have been promoted after affairs with coworkers, parents and recent graduates became widely known. A female school administrator was discouraged from applying for a principal position when it came open, despite being the most qualified person for the position, according to the district's own evaluation.


In the end, Kelly prevailed: On Dec. 16, Superintendent Mark McKinney sent an email to all district employees, officially welcoming Kelly back as the Assistant Superintendent of Personnel Services beginning Jan. 1.


"Over the course of the previous three years, in addition to assistant superintendent, Karen Kelly has performed other jobs for the district," McKinney said earlier this month. "With regards to the prior litigation, the matter has been resolved to the parties' mutual satisfaction."


Legal representatives for both sides are scheduled to appear in Victorville Superior Court on Feb. 15 to formally dismiss the case. Typically, the full details of settlements in employment cases are never made public.


Daily Press staff writer Tomoya Shimura contributed to this story.


Beau Yarbrough may be reached at (760) 956-7108 or at Beau@HesperiaStar.com. Follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/Hesperia.Star.