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Plante wins arbitration in District 833 salary case; human rights investigation under way

Woodbury High School Principal Linda Plante won the first part of a legal dispute with District 833 last month and is now awaiting a human rights investigation ruling.

Plante alleges the district discriminated against her based on her gender when it hired former Park High School Principal Craig Paul at an overall better compensation package.

Washington County District Judge Richard Ilkka issued an arbitration order in July, which means the case will move forward, but not until a human rights investigation is complete.

"ISD 833 discriminated on the basis of her gender by paying a Caucasian male interim principal more," Plante's attorney Jeffrey Schiek said.

All principals in the district are hired under a contract that lists a pay schedule with set amounts for senior high principals who advance depending on their tenure. Plante alleges Paul received about $60,000 more in an independently negotiated contract that was not approved by the Principals Association.

But District 833 attorney Mick Waldspurger said that number is not correct and "the district vigorously denies all allegations and intends to contest them to the end."

Limited by the Minnesota Data Practices Act and pending litigation, Waldspurger said he's unable to publicly discuss personnel issues involved in the case.

An information request by the Bulletin states, according to District 833 officials, Paul's total salary was $122,272, while Plante was paid $125,772 in 2011.

"The district sees no merit whatsoever to the allegations," Waldspurger said.

But Plante, along with East Ridge High School Principal Aaron Harper, argue it was unfair to award Paul the total compensation package he received as interim principal.

Harper said the salary figure does not include an additional "$20,000 plus" placed in Paul's retirement account, nor the payout for unused sick or vacation time.

Additionally, the vacancy to replace former Park High School Principal Efe Agbamu was not posted, according to District 833 officials who said it was not legally required to post the job.

Though he didn't file a court case with Plante, Harper submitted internal complaints alleging pay disparities based on racial discrimination as well.

Harper, an African American, said it's concerning and may set precedent that a "middle-aged Caucasian male" earn more benefits, including additional vacation pay, than other principals with the same or more qualifications.

"Whether the intent of the district is to be discriminatory, or the perception is being discriminatory or not, I certainly believe it's worthy of looking into," he said.

The independent contract Paul was awarded wasn't recognized by the Principals Association, Harper said, which was cause for concern and lack of trust between the group and district administration.

"The association did not approve Craig's independently negotiated contract, nor do we believe it is consistent with the values established by entering into interest-based bargaining," he added.

Harper is taking a wait and see approach, but said the order to grant arbitration is a good sign since the district rejected his and Plante's internal petitions.

"A step in the right direction in terms of Linda's case and in general what we've been trying to explain to the district from our perspective," he said. "Partially, their defense, or their reason for not following grievance is it's not arbitratable."

Jeff Holman, deputy communications director for the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, said he could not comment on open cases, citing the Human Rights Act.

However, the court documents issued by Judge Ilkka stated that arbitration is stayed until the Department of Human Rights investigation is complete and that Plante filed the discrimination claim in September 2012.

Holman said the department has one year to reach a determination in any case.

But Harper and Plante don't expect a conclusion any time soon, since these types of cases typically take a lot longer, he said, calling the delay "unfortunate."

"I think it'd be great to move forward and focus on what's important in front of us which are the schools and students," Harper said.

The case ultimately affects every principal in the district and whatever the outcome of the situation is would be applied "minimally to myself," he added.

"Secondary outcome could be that every administrator and principal within the district union bargaining can also be impacted," he said.

If the Department of Human Rights finds probable cause, Schiek said he'll move forward with the litigation process. If not, then a lawsuit will be filed.

"There has been very little talks about a settlement," he said.

Waldspurger said District 833 will continue to fight the claims.

"The district believes that it acted appropriately in all respects," he said. "Unfortunately we're limited by the data practices act with the information we can provide and also by the fact that it's a pending litigation."

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.