JONESBORO — After the Westside School District discontinued a Black assistant principal’s contract on April 23, she lodged a discrimination case against the district.
Ulanda Digby-Branch, previously the assistant principal at Westside Middle School, lodged the civil suit electronically against the district on Tuesday.
Prior to Digby-Branch’s termination, Superintendent Scott Gauntt moved her from the high school to the middle school following unfounded complaints from Principal Michael Graham in 2016, according to the suit.
Before that move, the middle school did not have an assistant principal.
In July 2017, Digby-Branch filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stating that Principal Pam Dooley sexually harassed her and made numerous racist comments to her.
Less than a week after she filed the complaint, Gauntt moved Dooley to “a position as curriculum director for the district on this same date instead of being removed for cause,” according to court documents. He also requested she drop the complaint.
“At that point, Defendant Gauntt told Plaintiff that he had torn up the incidents from the file folder and that the employees had misunderstood,” according to the document.
Digby-Branch provided at least 31 instances showing complaints against her were fabricated by Dooley and Graham. Three of those were recorded conversations lodged in the complaint.
According to the filing, Gauntt also did not investigate an incident where a teacher allegedly assaulted Digby-Branch.
Digby-Branch reported the incident to Dooley.
Gauntt and Dooley added the assault to her personnel file “unbeknownst to Plaintiff until she requested and received her personnel file on May 3, 2017.”
In April of that year, Gauntt attempted to fire her half way through the school semester “based on Dooley’s midyear evaluation and other allegations from other faculty and staff, placed in her personnel folder by Dooley without Plaintiff’s knowledge,” according to the documents.
Gauntt also “failed to address numerous complaints by Plaintiff of the middle school resource officer’s harassment, causing the harassment to continue until November 2018, when one incident of the harassment was reported by several teachers that witnessed it.”
Digby-Branch is certified as a building administrator for fifth- through 12th-graders, superintendent for kindergarten through 12th graders and has a master’s degree in educational leadership and a specialist degree required to be a superintendent.
On March 6, 2020, Gauntt hand delivered an undated letter to Digby-Branch stating that he intended to recommend to the school board that the members refrain from renewing her contract because: the district has static enrollment and little money, the assistant principal position is not required by law and the district cannot afford to keep her in the position, according to her lawsuit against the district.
The district’s attorney, Donn Mixon, said the school district – like all school districts in the state – has been having to look at its finances closely.
“During the meeting on March 6, 2020, Defendant Gauntt told Plaintiff that her position was chosen because she had less seniority,” according to the court documents.
The document continued, “At least 2 other people in classified positions, i.e., non teaching positions, had their contracts renewed that were not needed per the minimum staffing projections.”
At the hearing Gauntt said Digby-Branch’s “performance was not a factor in his decision to recommend that Plaintiff not be renewed,” according to the suit.
Digby-Branch is represented by a relative, Felicia Branch, an attorney at the Branch Tax Law Firm in Durham, N.C.
“I included the items that I thought were necessary. There were more,” Branch said. “In terms of the egregiousness, the fact that there were more made it so egregious.”
Mixon said on Thursday afternoon that part of the reason the school is so strapped for cash is because Arkansans voted to raise the minimum wage.
Mixon said the school discontinued her contract because she had the least seniority, something Digby-Branch repeatedly denies in her suit.
“So they eliminated the position so she was in that position, but she was also the one with the least seniority,” Mixon said about the process, which has become increasingly common in recent years.
“I wouldn’t say often, but it has been happening more in recent years because it’s been more common to have what school people like to call ‘unfunded mandates’” Mixon said.
“The fact that no school in Arkansas is well funded,” contributes to the problem, Mixon said, adding that combined with the pandemic it has rocked the school’s finances.
“Ms. Branch, I think her job performance was never criticized by the superintendent,” Mixon said. “If asked, he would give her a good recommendation, a good reference.”