Weather Forecast


School District 833 reaches settlement in ex-employee's racial discrimination lawsuit

South Washington County Schools reached a settlement with a former employee who had sued an administrator and the district for racial discrimination.

The district last week settled the federal civil rights case brought by Michele Walker, who worked as a school psychologist from 2011 to 2014. Walker claimed the district and Julie Nielsen, an assistant superintendent and former Middleton Elementary School principal, did not renew her contract because of Walker’s race. Walker was one of the district’s few black employees. Nielsen is white.

The district disputed that, and it claimed Walker’s performance and her handling of a conflict with a coworker were cause for her non-renewal.

The settlement agreement is subject to District 833 School Board approval. It will go to the board March 16, according to Trevor Helmers, an attorney for the district.

Settlement terms are not yet public.

The case had been scheduled for a trial this spring. The settlement was reached through a 10-hour conference March 1 in St. Paul, nearly two years after Walker first took action against the district.

Initially, Walker filed a race discrimination complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, but it was dismissed in April 2015. In September 2015, she sued the district and Nielsen in federal court. She was seeking $75,000 in damages.

Walker worked her first year at Royal Oaks and Bailey elementary schools and was described as proficient in a performance evaluation. She moved to Middleton Elementary in fall 2012 and was supervised by Nielsen.

According to court filings, Walker received generally positive performance evaluations through early 2014, and Nielsen recommended her for a program related to her pursuit of an administrative degree. Nielsen also recommended Walker be elevated to a continuing contract status, removing her from probationary employment status.

Walker claimed she later was fired by Nielsen after an episode between Walker and another staff member who had disagreed with her over a black student’s special education assessment. Walker and the other employee exchanged emails; Walker accused the coworker of making it a racial issue.

During a deposition in the court case, Nielsen testified she actually was “on the fence” about recommending Walker receive a continuing contract. Also, the district said Walker’s performance declined after the contract recommendation.

The settlement comes after U.S. District Judge David Doty refused to grant the district’s request for summary judgment in the case, in a November 2016 ruling. Doty ruled that there was an “inference of discrimination” in Nielsen’s failure to fully investigate reasons that were the basis for Walker’s non-renewal.

Also, Doty wrote, while some of Walker’s comments to a colleague were “inflammatory and unprofessional,” so were the colleague’s. The judge noted Walker was terminated after that incident, but there was no evidence the other staff member was reprimanded.

“The wide disparity in their treatment also raises an inference of discrimination,” Doty wrote in the November order that allowed Walker’s case to proceed.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

(651) 459-7600