Cst 58944 St Paul Public School Headquarters E1615995322861

St. Paul district settles for $120,000 with teacher who told reporter about legal concerns – Twin Cities

When special education teacher Rachel Wannarka spoke to a reporter in 2018 about required services, she said that St. Paul Public Schools doesn’t provide her students, she hoped it would serve as a call to action.

“I was just trying to help,” she said. “We were hoping that they would give the students with disabilities what their IEPs said they were supposed to get.”

Instead, the third-year teacher said, her principal yelled at her and called her “untrustworthy.” And, after two poor performance evaluations, he was denied tenure and involuntarily transferred to another school.

Instead, Wannarka quit her job just before the 2018-19 school year and filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

After an investigation, the department determined in January there was probable cause to find that the school district retaliated against Wannarka, in violation of the state’s Human Rights Act.

To settle the case, the school board approved a $120,000 payout this month: $74,400 to Wannarka and $45,600 to her attorney, Ashwin Madia.

“The discrimination that I spoke to the reporter about in the first place was so disturbing… and then the retaliation that came after that was so bad and so painful, it was the most traumatic professional experience of my life,” Wannarka said in ‘ an interview said.

Wannarka, who now works for the Minnesota Department of Education, said she agreed to the settlement to move on.

“It ruined us in so many ways. I couldn’t imagine two more years of this,” she said.

According to a redacted settlement agreement provided by the district, “SPPS denies that it [redacted] Wannarka in any way unlawfully harmed.” It says the district reached the settlement “to avoid the significant expense and burden associated with litigation.”

City Pages article

Wannarka is one of several teachers from various schools who spoke to a City Pages reporter for the 2018 article, but she was the only one who agreed to be named.

In the article, Wannarka claimed that dozens of her students at Humboldt High School had individualized education programs (IEPs) that required more time with instructional aids than the district provided. As a result, those students with disabilities failed math in mainstream classes and were transferred to special education classes taught at lower levels, she said.

In a statement provided to City Pages at the time, a district spokesperson suggested the problem was a shortage of teaching assistants. However, Wannarka said last week that the statement missed the mark, as all of Humboldt’s teaching assistant positions were filled at the time; the district simply did not budget enough aide positions to cover what students’ plans required.

The article was published on February 13, 2018 under the headline “Teachers: St. Paul schools violate federal law with special kids.”

The next day, Humboldt Principal Mike Sodomka observed Wannarka’s classroom for a previously scheduled performance review.

“After the students left, he yelled at me, told me I was ‘untrustworthy’ and told me he had instructed building administrators to stop sharing information with me,” Wannarka said later that year. wrote her letter of resignation.

Sodomka’s response surprised Wannarka, as he had previously encouraged her to “go public” with her concerns that the district was not providing enough special education paraprofessionals, she wrote.

Poor performance

In Wannarka’s first two years with the district, two other principals rated her “proficient” on all six performance assessments.

Sodomka rated her as “developed” on all three reviews in 2017-18. Although one of them was done before the City Pages article was published, her last two evaluations at Humboldt were much worse than the first: Out of 106 categories, she was rated “below standard” in five areas before the article and 29 areas after; she was rated “proficient” in 71 areas before and 26 after.

“It is difficult to imagine how (Wannarka’s) performance could have changed so fundamentally within a two-month period,” Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero wrote in a probable cause finding.

According to human rights department reports, the district said Wannarka agreed that she performed poorly during the Feb. 14 classroom observation. However, Lucero concluded that there was “compelling evidence of retaliation” and “no evidence to explain why the review is so much lower.”

Sodomka, now an assistant principal at another district school, said by email that he felt “the performance evaluation was accurate” but declined further comment.

District spokeswoman Erica Wacker declined to comment.

Minnesota teachers typically get tenure after three years with a district, but St. Paul instead offered Wannarka a fourth trial year in another school. Wannarka declined and went to work for a charter school.

Wannarka argued her resignation was a “constructive dismissal” — that the district forced her to quit by creating intolerable working conditions. The human rights department initially agreed, but changed its decision after the district appealed.

“The greater weight of the evidence shows that respondent intended to continue to support (Wannarka) in her career and did not intend to cause the charging party’s resignation,” Lucero wrote.

Previous settlements

Several St. Paul teachers have received payouts in recent years after speaking out about problems in the district.

Most notably, Aaron Benner settled for $525,000 in 2019 after criticizing the district’s racial equity policy at a 2014 school board meeting and in numerous media interviews; the district opened four separate personnel investigations against him in the year after he spoke out.

In 2017, Peggy Anne Severs settled for $75,000 after he filed a lawsuit alleging First Amendment retaliation. She was placed on involuntary leave the day after a 2015 meeting with her principal in which she alleged the district was violating federal law by mass-assigning special education students to mainstream classrooms, regardless of what their IEPs required.

Substitute teacher Candice Egan was paid $20,000 in 2018 after claiming in a lawsuit that the St. Paul County blacklisted her after she spoke to a reporter in 2016 about a 12-year-old student who assaulted her.

Wannarka said that during settlement negotiations, she tried to get the school district to do something — a change in policies or procedures or even signs in break rooms — that would make it clear the district could not retaliate against staff members who raised their concerns. not disclose.

She said the district was not interested in discussing it.

“The thing that feels the worst about all of this is,” she said, is that her co-workers at Humboldt saw what happened to her when she spoke out. “It makes people feel even more afraid to do something.”

Related Posts