Former assistant principal files suit against Westside

Former assistant principal files suit against Westside
(Source: Gray News)

JONESBORO, Ark. (KAIT) - A former assistant principal at Westside Middle School has filed suit in Craighead County Circuit Court, alleging the district violated the Arkansas Teacher Fair Dismissal Act and breached the assistant principal’s contract.

In the 13-page complaint, filed July 7, Ulanda Digby-Branch filed the complaint against the Westside Consolidated School District and Superintendent Scott J. Gauntt, both individually and in his capacity as superintendent.

The Westside School Board voted in April not to renew Digby-Branch’s contract, citing financial concerns.

In the complaint, Digby-Branch, through her attorney, Felicia L. Branch of Durham, N.C., spelled out the issue.

“Defendant Gauntt hand-delivered an undated letter to Plaintiff on March 6, 2020, stating that he intended to recommend to the school board that they not renew her contract for the following three reasons (a) The school district has had static enrollment, is facing an increase of salaries for classified staff of over $150,000, is facing an increase of salaries for certified staff to meet the state imposed new minimum salary, has increased expenses for debt service and is facing a rising increase in teacher retirement payments,” the complaint noted. “(b) Your position of assistant principal at the middle school is not required by Arkansas standards; and (c) The district cannot afford to keep you in a position that is not required to be filled.”

Digby-Branch also alleges in the complaint that there were issues of discrimination and harassment within the district for several years.

“In June 2016, prior to his official start date, Defendant Gauntt was in contact with and receiving information from the high school principal, Michael Graham (”Graham”) regarding Plaintiff’s work performance. In July 2016, Plaintiff provided Defendant Gauntt with proof of false allegations in his evaluation of Plaintiff. Instead of terminating Graham for cause, Defendant Gauntt moved Plaintiff to middle school assistant principal despite her reluctance to move due to small numbers at the middle school,” Digby-Branch alleged in the complaint. “Prior to that move, the middle school did not have an assistant principal. Defendant Gauntt told Plaintiff that the evaluation by Graham would not be counted.”

Digby-Branch also mentioned in the complaint incidents in Oct. 2016, April 2017 and May 2017.

“In October 2016, Defendant Gauntt failed to investigate an incident involving a teacher striking Plaintiff after she reported the incident to her immediate supervisor, Pam Dooley. Defendant Gauntt and Dooley added this incident to her personnel file folder unbeknownst to Plaintiff until she requested and received her personnel file on May 3, 2017. On April 14, 2017, Defendant Gauntt met with Plaintiff regarding non-renewal of her contract based on Dooley’s midyear evaluation and other allegations from other faculty and staff, placed in her personnel folder placed by Dooley without Plaintiff’s knowledge,” the complaint noted. “On May 8, 2017, Plaintiff sent an email identifying 28 incidents placed in her personnel file folder that were fabricated or misrepresentations.”

Digby-Branch said in the complaint, she filed an EEOC complaint on May 12, 2017, alleging racial and sexual discrimination based on “incidents of harassment by Dooley asking her to leave the district.”

Three days later, Digby-Branch said she was reassigned to curriculum director at the district.

Digby-Branch said she met with Gauntt at least twice in May and June 2017 after the EEOC complaint was filed.

“Defendant Gauntt met with Plaintiff on May 19, 2017, wherein Plaintiff provided recorded proof to Defendant Gauntt of three incidents that were fabricated. On June 2, 2017, Plaintiff provided a written response to the 28 items in her personnel file that were fabricated or misrepresented incidents proving that the items were fabricated or misrepresented,” Digby-Branch said. “On June 12, 2017, Defendant Gauntt met with Plaintiff and requested that she drop the EEOC charges. At that point, Defendant Gauntt told Plaintiff that he had torn up the incidents from the file folder and that the employees had misunderstood. Defendant Gauntt failed to address numerous complaints by Plaintiff of the middle school resource officer’s harassment, causing the harassment to continue until November 2018, when one incident of the harassment was reported by several teachers that witnessed it.”

School district attorney Donn Mixon said Friday that the district disputes the allegations of racial bias as well as job performance issues involving Digby-Branch, saying it was not a factor in the non-renewal.

Mixon also said the issue concerned the position not being required by the state of Arkansas, noting Digby-Branch was paid through the end of her 2019-2020 contract and that Superintendent Gauntt had promised to give Digby-Branch a good reference for any job in the future.

No court date has been set in the case, but Mixon said it is likely not to be heard before 2021.

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