The St. Paul Public Schools administration building on South Colborne Street in St. Paul, Minn. (Scott Takushi/Pioneer Press/TNS)
ST. PAUL, Minn. — When special education teacher Rachel Wannarka spoke to a reporter in 2018 about required services she said St. Paul Public Schools wasn’t providing her students, she hoped it would serve as a call to action.
“I was just trying to help,” she said. “We were hoping that they would give the students with disabilities what their IEPs said they were supposed to get.”
Instead, the third-year teacher said, her principal yelled at her and called her “untrustworthy.” And, after two poor performance evaluations, she was denied tenure and involuntarily transferred to another school.
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Wannarka instead quit her job just before the 2018-19 school year and filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.
Following an investigation, the department determined in January there was probable cause to find that the school district retaliated against Wannarka, in violation of the state’s Human Rights Act.
To settle the case, the school board this month approved a $120,000 payout: $74,400 for Wannarka and $45,600 for her attorney, Ashwin Madia.
“The discrimination I talked to the reporter about in the first place was so upsetting … and then the retaliation that came after that was so severe and so painful, it was the most traumatic professional experience of my life,” Wannarka said in an interview.
Now working for the Minnesota Department of Education, Wannarka said she agreed to the settlement in order to move on.
“This wrecked us in so many ways. I couldn’t imagine another two years of this,” she said.
According to a redacted settlement agreement provided by the district, “SPPS denies that it (redacted) unlawfully harmed Wannarka in any way.” It says the district reached the settlement “to avoid the considerable expense and burdens associated with litigation.”
City Pages article
Wannarka is one of several teachers from multiple schools who spoke to a City Pages reporter for the 2018 article, but she was the only one who agreed to be named.
In the article, Wannarka claimed that dozens of her students at Humboldt High School had individualized education programs (IEPs) that called for more time with instructional aides than the district was providing. As a consequence, those students with disabilities were failing math in mainstream classes and being transferred to special education classes taught at lower levels, she said.
In a statement provided to City Pages at the time, a district spokeswoman suggested the problem was a shortage of teaching assistants. However, Wannarka reently said the statement missed the mark, as all of Humboldt’s teaching assistant jobs were filled at the time; the district simply wasn’t budgeting enough aide positions to cover what students’ plans required.
The article was published Feb. 13, 2018 under the headline “Teachers: St. Paul schools are violating federal law with special ed kids.”
The next day, Humboldt Principal Mike Sodomka observed Wannarka’s classroom for a previously scheduled performance review.
“After the students left, he yelled at me, told me I was ‘untrustworthy,’ and told me he had directed building administrators to stop sharing information with me,” Wannarka wrote in her resignation letter later that year.
Sodomka’s response surprised Wannarka as he had previously encouraged her to “go public’ with her concerns that the district wasn’t providing enough special education paraprofessionals, she wrote.
In Wannarka’s first two years with the district, two other principals had rated her “proficient” on all six performance reviews.
Sodomka rated her “developing” on all three reviews in 2017-18. Although one of those was conducted before the City Pages article was published, her last two evaluations at Humboldt were much worse than the first: Out of 106 categories, she was rated “below standard” in five areas before the article and 29 areas after it; she was rated “proficient” in 71 areas before and 26 after.
“It is difficult to imagine how (Wannarka’s) performance could have changed so fundamentally within a two-month period,” Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero wrote in a probable cause finding.
According to reports from the human rights department, the district said Wannarka agreed she performed poorly during the Feb. 14 classroom observation. However, Lucero concluded there was “compelling evidence of reprisal” and “no evidence to explain why the review is so much lower.”
Sodomka, now an assistant principal at another district school, said by email that he feels “the performance evaluation was accurate,” but declined further comment.
District spokeswoman Erica Wacker declined to comment.
Minnesota teachers typically get tenure after three years with a district, but St. Paul instead offered Wannarka a fourth probationary year in a different school. Wannarka declined and went to work for a charter school.
Wannarka argued her resignation was a “constructive discharge” — that the district forced her to quit by creating intolerable working conditions. The human rights department initially agreed but changed its decision after the district appealed.
“The greater weight of the evidence shows respondent intended to continue supporting (Wannarka) in her career and did not intend to cause charging party’s resignation,” Lucero wrote.
Several St. Paul teachers have received payouts in recent years after speaking out about problems in the district.
Most notably, Aaron Benner settled for $525,000 in 2019 after criticizing the district’s racial equity policy during a 2014 school board meeting and in numerous media interviews; the district opened four separate personnel investigations against him in the year after he spoke out.
In 2017, Peggy Anne Severs settled for $75,000 after filing a lawsuit claiming First Amendment retaliation. She had been placed on involuntary leave the day after a 2015 meeting with her principal in which she claimed the district was violating federal law by reassigning special education students en masse to mainstream classrooms, without regard for what their IEPs required.
Substitute teacher Candice Egan was paid $20,000 in 2018 after claiming in a lawsuit that the St. Paul district blacklisted her after talking to reporter in 2016 about a 12-year-old student who assaulted her.
Wannarka said that during settlement negotiations, she tried to get the school district to do something — a change in policies or procedures or even signs in breakrooms — that would make it clear the district may not retaliate against staffers who go public with their concerns.
She said the district was “uninterested in discussing it.”
“The thing that feels the worst about all of this is,” she said, is that her co-workers at Humboldt saw what happened to her when she spoke out. “It makes people feel even more scared about doing something.”
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