The lawyer for former Martinsville High School Principal Angela Weinerth, who is appealing a federal judge’s dismissal of her discrimination lawsuit against the Martinsville School Board, said he believes the judge ruled incorrectly and that “the appeals court will rule favorably on her appeal, and return the matter to the District Court for trial on the merits.”
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 May 20 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.”
Weinerth is appealing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Urbanski’s order granting the Martinsville School Board’s motion for summary judgment.
“Mrs. Weinerth greatly respects Judge Michael Urbanski and the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia,” Glen Franklin Koontz, Weinerth’s lawyer, wrote in an email Wednesday.
“That being said, Mrs. Weinerth is of the view that the court ruled incorrectly, as a matter of law and a matter of fact, in granting the Martinsville City School Board’s motion for summary judgment.
“Accordingly, Mrs. Weinerth seeks the review and reversal of that ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Mrs. Weinerth is confident that the appeals court will rule favorably on her appeal, and return the matter to the District Court for trial on the merits.”
When asked for comment Tuesday, Joan Montgomery, former chair of the school board, wrote in an email: “I have not heard that and am quite surprised. I’ll leave it at that until I hear from our attorneys.”
Donna Dillard, vice chair of the Martinsville School Board, said she had no comment.
Jim Daniel, lawyer for the school board, did not respond immediately 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 Correa 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.”
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.
Urbanski 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 scores, 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.
Paul Collins is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. Contact him at 276-638-8801, ext. 236.