A federal judge has dismissed former principal Angela Weinerth’s lawsuit against the Martinsville School Board, saying she didn't prove that the school district had discriminated against her.
Weinerth had claimed the district had demoted her from principal of Martinsville High School in 2016 because of her race, gender and age.
Weinerth, who is white and in her 60s, claimed she was reassigned to assistant principal of Martinsville Middle School without cause when former principal Aji Dixon, who is black and in his 30s, was appointed to replace her at the high school. She had requested a jury trial and sought nearly $10 million in damages, lost salaries and other compensation.
Michael F. Urbanski, chief judge for the Western District of Virginia in Roanoke, wrote in his 20-page ruling to grant the school board's request for a summary judgment that there was no direct evidence that Weinerth’s race, gender or age played any role in her reassignment.
"Indeed," Urbanski wrote, "there is no hint in this record that Weinerth’s age or gender had anything to do with her move to the middle school.”
Martinsville School Board President Joan Montgomery said in an email that "this lawsuit had no merit from the start. To say that a school board has a policy of discrimination is ridiculous. We are constitutional officers, sworn to follow the constitution of Virginia and the United States. We have a policy against discrimination, and we follow it."
Neither Weinerth nor her attorney, Glen Koontz, responded to a request for comment.
Urbanski, who heard oral and written arguments on March 11, wrote that race enters the picture by virtue of comments made by Martinsville Superintendent Zeb Talley and school board member Victor Corea at a school board work session shortly after Talley was appointed interim superintendent and a few days before Weinerth was reassigned.
“The court does not believe that a reasonable jury could conclude that such aspirational statements in favor of enhanced diversity, in and of themselves are evidence of discriminatory animus,” Urbanski wrote. (“Animus” generally means hostility or ill feeling.)
Weinerth claimed that because Talley, who is African-American, reassigned her just 10 days after his appointment as interim superintendent and without hands-on knowledge of the situation at Martinsville High School, his decision must have been based on her age, gender or race, rather than concerns related to student discipline or safety at the high school.
Although Talley acted fast with the new school year approaching, Weinerth’s argument was “insufficient to rebut the well-supported rationale presented by the School Board,” Urbanski wrote.
“Relying on affidavits from Talley and two of its members, the School Board maintains that the high school had ‘serious disciplinary issues’ during Weinerth’s tenure as principal and therefore needed a ‘strong disciplinarian as principal.’ … Many other others who swore affidavits attested to discipline and student behavior problems at the high school during this period, including staff members who worked under Weinerth.”
One of them, Karen Sawyer, described students as “rowdy and somewhat out of control” during Weinerth’s tenure as principal, and another, Gerald Kidd, emphasized ‘(t)here were at least 46 reported fights between students during Mrs. Weinerth’s first year as principal,’ and that ‘(s)tudents were frequently not in class, skipped their classes completely, or left school early,” Urbanski wrote.
“Even viewing the record in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, a reasonable jury could not find that the alleged discipline-related reasons for removing Weinerth as principal and replacing her with Dixon are unworthy of credence. Weinerth has not presented any evidence, beyond speculation and conjecture, that the discipline problems at the high school chronicled in the affidavits supporting the School Boards’ motion were a pretext for discrimination.”
Former superintendent Pam Heath’s declaration that Weinerth had performed well as principal of Martinsville High School and that student behavior improved during her tenure is not sufficient to create a genuine issue of fact as to whether her reassignment was racially motivated, Urbanski wrote.
He added that Heath’s affidavit praised Weinerth and her 2013 performance review of Dixon as principal of Martinsville High School rated him as unacceptable, leading to his replacement by Weinerth as the high school principal for the 2013-14 school year.
“Obviously, former superintendent Heath and current superintendent Talley have different opinions as to the relative qualifications of Weinerth and Dixon. However, at the present stage of the analysis, ‘(i)t is the perception of the decision maker which is relevant. ... Thus, Heath’s difference of opinion is insufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Weinerth’s race, age, or gender was a determining factor in her reassignment,” Urbanski wrote.
He said Talley and Heath were allowed to have differing opinions about Dixon’s capabilities and the staffing needs of individual schools.
Urbanksi also said that Weinerth's argument that she was reassigned because "she did not look like most of the high school students is undermined by the fact that the same racial demographics exist at the middle school to which she was transferred.
“Further undermining her argument ... is the fact that Renee Brown, the younger, black assistant principal at the high school, was reassigned to an elementary school at the same time. While Brown remained in the role of assistant principal, the fact that she was removed from the high school setting along with Weinerth strongly supports the school board’s argument that race was not a determining factor in the management changes Talley made at the high school,” Urbanski wrote.
In addition to student discipline problems, the school board contended that the high school was not fully accredited during Weinerth’s tenure as principal from 2013 to 2016, based on student test scores that fell below state requirements.
Urbanski wrote that all the schools in the school system remained unaccredited at the end of Weinerth’s tenure.
The school board also contended that some teachers resigned from the high school because of what they termed was a poor learning environment. Urbanski wrote that Martinsville High School was not the only school in the school division that lost teachers at a significant rate during the time frame Weinerth was principal.
Talley asserted that Weinerth’s strengths are instruction and academics, that most of her career as an educator was in a middle school setting, and that Martinsville Middle School had no assistant principal and desperately needed an academic-driven administrator because of dropping test, court documents state.
Talley replaced Brown as assistant principal of Martinsville High School with Clarence Simington, a black male with experience both in the school system and law enforcement.
"This whole issue started from a newspaper article that reported on the school board’s desire to have a diverse teaching staff that is highly qualified and effective," Montgomery said. "The word diverse was taken out of context and used as a bad thing when every school system seeks to have teachers who represent students in gender, race, and talent. I am delighted this is over and thank our lawyers who listened to the many parents, teachers, police officers and staff members who came forward to tell why a change was needed at the high school.
"So much time and money was spent while our school system continues to move forward by providing a quality education to our students. We appreciate very much those families who continue to put their faith in us."