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

Rachel Wannarka, a special-education teacher in St. Paul, Minnesota, told a reporter in 2018 that her pupils weren’t receiving the necessary assistance from the school district. She hoped her comments would prompt change.

She said that she had just intended to be of assistance. We had hoped that they would provide the accommodations that were outlined in the IEPs for the pupils who needed them.

She stated her principal raged at her and labeled her untrustworthy instead. And, after two negative performance assessments, she was refused tenure and involuntarily relocated to another institution.

Instead, Wannarka resigned before the 2018–2019 school year began and went to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights to file a complaint.

After looking into it, the department found in January that the school district had retaliated against Wannarka, which was against the state’s Human Rights Act.

This month, Wannarka and her lawyer, Ashwin Madia, were each awarded $45,600 from the settlement money agreed upon by the school board.

Wannarka recalled in an interview that it was the most unpleasant professional experience of her life because “the prejudice I spoke to the reporter about in the first place was so distressing” and “the retribution that occurred after that was so harsh and so painful.”

Wannarka, who now works for the Minnesota Department of Education, said that she agreed to the settlement so that she could “move on.”

Everything was ruined because of this. She stated, “I just can’t see myself surviving another two years of this.”

In a settlement agreement with certain details blacked out, the district claims that “SPPS disputes that it [redacted] improperly damaged Wannarka in any manner.” The agreement says that the district came to a deal “to avoid the huge costs and trouble that come with litigation.”

City Pages article

Wannarka is one of the numerous teachers from several schools who talked to a City Pages reporter for the 2018 piece, but she was the only one who consented to be identified.

Wannarka, a teacher at Humboldt High School, said in the report that the district was not meeting the needs of her pupils, who had been placed on Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) that required additional time with instructional assistants. As a result, those children with impairments were failing arithmetic in mainstream classrooms and being moved to special-ed programs taught at lower levels, she added.

In a statement issued to City Pages at the time, a district representative said the problem was a scarcity of teaching assistants. Wannarka claimed last week that the district wasn’t allocating enough funding for aide positions to meet kids’ needs, despite the fact that all of the teaching assistant positions in Humboldt were filled at the time.

“Teachers: St. Paul schools are breaching federal law with special ed students,” is the title of a story published on February 13, 2018.

The next day, Principal Mike Sodomka from Humboldt High School came to Wannarka’s classroom to do an evaluation of his performance.

Wannarka resigned later that year after “he shouted at me after the kids departed, telling me I was “untrustworthy,” and telling me he had commanded building officials to cease providing information to me,” she stated.

Wannarka was surprised by Sodomka’s answer since he had previously told her to “go public” with her complaints that the district didn’t have enough paraprofessionals for students with special needs.

Poor performance

Wannarka had two different principals give her six “proficient” grades in her first two years with the district.

On all three evaluations in 2017–18, Sodomka gave her a “developing” rating. Her final two reviews at Humboldt were significantly worse than the first one, and one of them was done before the City Pages piece was published. She was assessed as “below standard” in five of a possible 106 categories before reading the article and in an additional 29 after; she was scored as “proficient” in 71 of those categories before and in 26 after.

Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero said in a finding of a reasonable cause that “it is impossible to fathom how Wannarka’s) performance could have altered so radically over a two-month period.”

School officials said Wannarka acknowledged she did badly during the classroom inspection on February 14. While there was “no evidence to explain why the review is so much lower,” Lucero found “compelling indications of retribution.”

By email, Sodomka, who is now an assistant principal at a different school in the district, said he agrees that “the performance assessment was correct,” but he refused to elaborate.

District spokesperson Erica Wacker refused to comment.

While teachers in Minnesota normally get tenure after three years in a district, Wannarka was granted a fourth year of probationary teaching at a different school by the St. Paul administration. Wannarka turned it down and is now employed at a charter school.

Wannarka maintained her resignation was a “constructive discharge”—that the district drove her to retire by creating unpleasant working circumstances. The human rights division agreed at first but reversed course when the district filed an appeal.

According to the evidence presented, “respondent wanted to continue helping (Wannarka) in her career and did not aim to cause the charging party’s departure,” as Lucero put it.

Concessions made in the past

In the past few years, some St. Paul teachers who spoke out about problems in the school system were paid for their work.

For example, in 2019, Aaron Benner settled for $525,000 after challenging the district’s racial equality policy at a school board meeting and making many media appearances in 2014. In the year after his comments, the district filed four different personnel investigations against Benner.

After bringing a lawsuit in 2017 and alleging retribution for exercising her First Amendment rights, Peggy Anne Severs settled for $75,000. After a meeting with her principal in 2015, in which she alleged the district was breaking federal law by reassigning special-education children en masse to mainstream classes without consideration for what their IEPs needed, the district put her on involuntary leave the next day.

Candice Egan, a substitute teacher, was awarded $20,000 in a case she filed against the St. Paul school system in 2018 for allegedly blacklisting her after she spoke to a reporter in 2016 about a 12-year-old kid who had abused her.

Wannarka said that during settlement talks, she tried to get the school district to change its rules and procedures or put up signs in the staff lounge to make it clear that the district could not punish employees who spoke out in public.

There was “no desire in talking about it,” she stated, regarding the school system.

The saddest part, she added, was that her Humboldt Co. coworkers had seen the backlash she received for speaking up. It makes people even more reluctant to take action.

Brian Cooper
Brian Cooper
Brian Cooper is a global reporter for TheOptic, focusing on bringing insights and developments for global and local breaking news daily. With almost seven years of experience covering topics from all over the world, Brian strives to make sure you stay up-to-date with what's going on in the world.
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