In Federal Court, a Former Dallas ISD Principal Fights For Her Old Job, Salary

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While on PACER this morning, I came across a lawsuit against the Dallas Independent School District about which not one word has been written: 55-year-old Lilia Gutierrez, a former principal at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School, is suing the district, claiming, among other things, that she was wrongfully demoted in June 2008 -- after having elevated the school from "academically acceptable" to "recognized." She also had her salary reduced by almost $20,000 and was replaced at Bethune by a 38-year-old woman with far less experience -- four years, compared with Gutierrez's 23.

Then, not long after that, Gutierrez was among the hundreds of teachers laid off in October by the district to cover the $84-million budget shortfall. District officials insist that Gutierrez's claims to her old job and salary went out the window when she signed the DISD reduction-in-force letter, which guaranteed teachers 45 days' worth of salary while they looked for work.

Gutierrez's attorney, Maricela Siewczynski, says her client's demotion, which began the sequence of events leading to the lawsuit, should have never happened in the first place. In April 2008, Gilberto Gonzalez, the executive director of DISD's Southwest Elementary Learning Community, placed Gutierrez on what was called a "Plan for Administrator in Need," in which he demanded she get the school's TAKS scores up. She did, as evidenced by the scores posted on the school's Web site maintained by the district and by the new ranking as recognized. Nonetheless, Gonzalez demoted her to assistant principal at Thomas Tolbert Elementary School.

In December '08, at a hearing before school board trustees Jerome Garza, Nancy Bingham and Carla Ranger, district officials and attorneys claimed that Gutierrez had no right to protest her demotion to assistant principal at another school or the accompanying reduction in pay. Why? Because she'd signed the October 15 letter sent to RIF'd personnel, which they were given a mere three days to sign lest they lose paychecks promised through January 16, 2009. (District officials continue to refer to the document as a "voluntary" severance.) Siewczynski tells Unfair Park today that those letters should be considered "invalid" because they appear to violate the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act. (Update: Explains Siewczynski, "The OWBPA has certain requirements in order for an individual to waive age discrimination claims. Those are the federal claims that Gutierrez asserts in her lawsuit.")

"I told them that release isn't valid, and they said, 'We knew we weren't doing it right, but we needed to get it done,'" Siewczynski says. "So for those reasons and their refusal to discuss the matter [of Gutierrez's demotion], I sued them. What else am I going to do? This woman hadn't had a job since January, and she was the principal at a recognized school. It's pretty sad."

After the jump, you'll find not only the complaint filed in U.S. District Court on June 4, but also the entirety of the transcript from the December 11, 2008, Level III hearing in front of the three trustees -- all of whom appeared to side with Gutierrez. Says Siewczynski, "I thought I'd won. That's what's so sad. I left and thought, 'I got the board to agree with me.'"

The district has not yet filed a resposne to the lawsuit, and DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander says he has not yet read the lawsuit, which I forwarded to him at 1:53 p.m. today, and can provide no comment.

Update Monday at 8:08 a.m.: Dahlander responds, "As a practice, we do not comment on pending litigation or personnel matters."

Lilia Gutierrez v. DISD Gutierrez Hearing Transcript

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