AUBURN – A social worker who was let go from her school job after 18 years because she lacked a master’s degree is suing the Turner school system.

Kelly Walton, 45, of Turner filed a complaint in Androscoggin County Superior Court against SAD 52, its superintendent and the chairwoman of the school board.

Walton was hired in 1988 to provide social services to students, largely in the special education program, said her lawyer, Donald Fontaine.

She had a contract with the school district due to expire in August 2006. But school officials revised her job qualifications in November and stopped her paychecks in February.

Walton was told she was let go because the federal government won’t compensate the school for social services if the person providing them doesn’t have a master’s degree in social work, Fontaine said. Walton has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maine at Farmington.

The law requiring a master’s degree for Medicaid reimbursement was passed in 1998, Fontaine said, though the school only became aware of the requirement earlier this year.

“They well knew she didn’t have a master’s degree,” Fontaine said.

Rather than seeking to work with her to get the needed academic credentials, school officials let her go and hired somebody else, he said.

Minutes from November meetings show the board took that action because it couldn’t afford not to be reimbursed for Walton’s services.

School Superintendent Thomas Hanson said Wednesday the board did the right thing. “We are vigorously defending ourselves in this matter.”

Walton’s abrupt job loss has resulted in a struggle to pay her mortgage and medical bills, as well as the costly care of her 9- and 12-year-old kids who have serious medical issues, according to the suit.

“She’s financially devastated,” Fontaine said.

A single parent, she has had to apply for food stamps to feed her children, whose medical expenses are covered by Medicaid, he said.

The Maine Education Association, a union representing teachers, hired Fontaine to represent Walton, he said.

Walton won’t be able to find another job in her field until the start of the next school year, Fontaine said.

She had kept her social worker’s license current and took the necessary courses to maintain her position in the school system, Fontaine said.

“There was no issue about her work performance,” he said. “It was perfect, insofar as we know.”