by Valerie Verkamp
The Park Hill School District will pay a $1,672,153 settlement in an employment discrimination lawsuit filed by three former parent educators.
Various payout amounts to multiple plaintiffs are listed in a settlement document obtained by The Landmark via an open records request.
Plaintiffs Jana Lane of Overland Park, Dee Maher of Kansas City and Karen Brunk of Parkville filed the lawsuit on July 17, 2016, alleging school officials took adverse and discriminatory action against them because of their age.
The suit was brought against Dr. Jeanette Cowherd, who currently serves as superintendent and was an assistant superintendent at the time of the alleged action; Dr. Scott Springston, who served as superintendent at the time of the alleged action; Dr. Bill Redinger, assistant superintendent for human resources; Dr. Linda Kaiser, director of support staff; Dr. Angela Currey, who was principal of the district’s Gerner Family Learning Center at the time; and the Park Hill School District.
Combined, the plaintiffs have 70 years experience providing parent educational services to families with young children in the Parent as Teachers Program (PAT Program).
The lawsuit alleges age was a factor in the decision to “constructively discharge” all three parent educators over the pivotal age of 40 and replace them with employees under the age of 40.
According to the settlement agreement, the district has agreed to pay Jana Lane $387,912, Dee Maher $400,864 and Karen Brunk $263,472 in lost wages and damages.
Park Hill will also pay $22,875 to Lane's retirement service credits and $24,279 to Maher's retirement service credits.
Additionally, the district will pay $572,751 to the plaintiff's attorneys at Zerger & Mauer for legal fees and expenses.
The plaintiff's brought the lawsuit under the Missouri Human Rights Act, which safeguards older workers from facing adverse employment actions due to their age. Employers are prohibited from reducing their employees' salary and depriving employees of employment opportunities due to an individual's age.
In a statement released by Park Hill after the settlement agreement had been obtained by The Landmark, district officials agreed to settle the case and avoid the possibility of an unfavorable outcome if left to a jury.
The district contends at the time the lawsuit was filed the Missouri Human Rights Act “made it extremely easy for aggrieved employees to
win suits against their employers when compared to federal anti-discrimination laws.”
The district points out in 2017 the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA) was amended. Damages are now capped, and individual managers are no longer legally liable for acts done in the interest of their employer.
“The old version of the MHRA also had no limits on the amount of damages a jury could have awarded, leading to wildly unpredictable outcomes. And employers who lost those suits had to pay the attorneys' fees of the former employees; Missouri courts have awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys' fees, on top of jury verdicts that bore no relationship to the actual harm suffered by former employees,” the district said in a prepared statement sent to The Landmark by Nicole Kirby, the district’s director of communications.
Prior to the amendments of the MHRA, at one point there were 80 employment discrimination suits filed against school districts in Missouri, Kirby stated. On the Kansas side at that same point in time, Kirby said only three lawsuits had been filed against Kansas school districts.
“As a result, employers in Missouri have often had to settle claims for large sums or else roll the dice on the outcome of a jury trial. The Park Hill Board of Education, in conjunction with the district's insurer, determined that it was fiscally prudent to resolve this case and eliminate the risk of an unfavorable outcome,” the district said in a prepared statement.
The district continues to deny any wrongdoing.
“Park Hill has a robust policy prohibiting employment discrimination, and has always denied that it actually discriminated against the former employees involved in this case,” the district’s statement said. “Park Hill applauds the Missouri Legislature for bringing the MHRA more into line with federal law, and creating a more even playing field for disputes with its employees.”
Pursuant to the settlement agreement, the plaintiffs agreed not to seek re-employment with the district in the future. The settlement agreement also prevents the parties from filing any future lawsuits on the same claims of discrimination.
In the fall of 2014, school officials revealed it was the district's intention to restructure the Parents as Teachers Program amidst budgetary changes and a slump in the number of families participating in the program.
The suit contends the district had discretion over how many families could utilize services through the Parent as Teachers Program (PAT) and deliberately set stricter
requirements above and beyond the statewide guidelines, which directly resulted in fewer families being served.
Lane began delivering parent education, including developmental screenings and home visits in October of 1991. After a period of 24 years, Lane was earning an annual salary of $31,000. When the district substantially altered the PAT Program in April of 2015 her salary was reduced to $17,000 per year.
Similarly, Maher's and Brunk's salaries were also slashed nearly in half.
According to the lawsuit, cuts to the PAT program were announced in an emergency meeting without the presence of the parent teachers. The older workers allege they were told to grin and bear it in a separate meeting with defendants Dr. Linda Kaiser and Dr. Angela Currey, because they could easily be replaced with “less experienced” teachers if they raised objections about the significant pay decrease.
Around the time their wages were being slashed, teachers' salaries were gaining about a 2% pay increase. Lane, Maher and Brunk also held active teaching certificates. They claim this is an example of adverse action taken against them because of their age.
When the plaintiffs brought their concern about the reduction in their wage and the possibility of being replaced with younger teachers to defendant Dr. Jeanette Cowherd, she allegedly went on the defense by stating, “If you fire arrows into our camp, we will fire back,” states the lawsuit.
Soon thereafter, the suit alleges a number of school officials made false remarks to school board members and actively participating PAT families about the program, including salary information and statistical data.
The Park Hill School District employed plaintiff Brunk since 1987 to serve as a parent educator. Brunk was earning a yearly salary of $9,794 and was meeting the goals set forth by the district.
Still, her salary was cut to $4,250 per year. Despite the $5,544 pay deduction, Brunk moved forward with entering into a teaching contract. In review of the contract, she noticed several errors and requested to have those corrected. When the district issued a revised version, her salary had once again been reduced.
The explanation justifying yet another pay cut had to do with her not attending mass screening events or group meetings. But over the past two decades, Brunk opted to make herself available for evening visits with families rather than participate in those events.
The district also imposed a new requirement making it mandatory for her to be on-call on evenings,
weekends and during group meetings. Brunk indicated the new on-call requirement would make it impossible for her to carry out her duties as a parent educator because it conflicted with her other job.
With her hands tied, Brunk began looking for other employment opportunities within the district. But when she approached Dr. Linda Kaiser and Dr. Bill Redinger about a vacant ESL position listed on the district's website, she was informed the position had been filled, states the petition for damages. Brunk alleges the job posting was merely temporarily removed and re-posted weeks later.
In an answer filed with the court, the defendants claim Lane, Maher, and Brunk voluntarily resigned from their positions as parent educators in July of 2015. The defendants' affirmative defense to the courts states the older women failed to go through the proper channels when dealing with discrimination. They allege the teacher educators failed to pursue corrective opportunities offered by the Park Hill School District, thus are prohibited from seeking relief in court.
They also admit Dr. Currey, principal of the Gerner Family Learning Center, held a staff meeting to discuss the proposed restructuring of the PAT Program. But the district denied not inviting the parent educators to the meeting and informing the parent educators in a subsequent meeting they could be replaced with “less experienced individuals.”
The defendants don't deny that the parent educators raised their concerns about restructuring of the program with Dr. Jeanette Cowherd. Yet, the district denied the parent educators expressed their concern of being replaced with younger workers.
With regards to Brunk's allegation that the district imposed a new on-call requirement making it impossible for her to carry out her duties as a parent educator, the defendants acknowledge telling Brunk she needed to perform the required job duties but deny the requirement was new. Their response claims there is insufficient evidence to suggest Brunk wouldn't be able to carry out her duties as a parent educator due of an on-call requirement.
The district confirmed Brunk verbally expressed interested in an ESL position posted online as open to fill, but claims the position had been filled and denies reposting the position weeks later.