(Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct spelling of the first name of Deborrah Skaggs.)
Eight jurors started hearing evidence Monday in the case of a former Van Alstyne Independent School District language arts teacher who claims the school district fired her because of her age. The case is ongoing in Sherman's federal district magistrate court with Judge Christine Nowak presiding.
In a case filed in March of last year, Deborrah Skaggs said she started getting bad reviews after her principal, Ryan Coleman asked her if she planned to retire and she said she did not. The district said the fact that Skaggs' contract was not renewed had nothing to do with her age.
In opening arguments Monday, Skaggs' attorney Brandon Shelby told jurors that as they listened to the evidence in the case, they should be asking themselves, “What is really going on here?”
He pointed out that until she started being asked questions about retirement, all of Skaggs' reviews were positive and the comments on them were glowing. Shelby asked jurors to question what could have happened in a matter of months to make such a praised and apparently valuable teacher be considered someone who needed to be remediated and then basically fired.
Shelby said he is confident jurors will find that the reason Van Alstyne ISD suddenly didn't want Skaggs as a teacher “is because she was too expensive.”
Donald Wood, one of two attorneys representing Van Alstyne ISD in the case, said the case has nothing to do with age.
“This is a case about the quality of her work,” he said.
He said Coleman worked with Skaggs to try to get her to reach expectations for her as a teacher because it is cheaper for a business to do that than to hire a new employee.
Wood agreed that Skaggs has received good reviews up until a certain point. He said Van Alstyne ISD Superintendent John Spies came to the district with a mandate to improve education within the district after the schools preformed poorly on state tests. Wood said Skaggs proved not to be up to getting the results that Spies said were needed. He said she was put on a growth plan a number of times and eventually appeared to not be participating in them anymore.
Walking over to the space between the jury box and Skaggs, Wood would look at her while talking about the district trying to work with her. He said the fact that Coleman asked her about her retirement plans does not prove that anyone did anything because of her age. Wood compared the principal to a coach and said he had to assess who would be returning from one year to the next, so he knew what talent he needed to acquire for the team.
He pointed out that Skaggs asked for a hearing in front of the Van Alstyne ISD board of trustees and they voted to support the option to not renew her contract.
Because this is a civil case, the plaintiff got to present its case first. Shelby spent the afternoon taking the jury through each of the end of the year assessments and the multiple observation reports that she received each year. He asked her to compare the glowing reports and assessments she received in years before Coleman was the principal under Spies and those she received after those changes. Skaggs said she could not think of anything she was not doing or anything that she was doing differently that would account for the change in her scores on the reviews.
She went over reports from Coleman that showed scores on her final review that trended downward, but written comments that matched identically or nearly identically reviews that had higher scores. Some of the remarks were very complimentary of her skills.
She testified that the changes started after Coleman had asked her whether she had thought about retirement and said it would give her more time to spend with her grandchildren. She testified that he later repeated his questions about retirement and when she still said she wasn't ready to retire, he asked her if she would consider an aide position that would be available the next year. She said she would not. When Shelby asked her why she said that, Skaggs said the position paid about half what her teaching position paid and she still enjoyed teaching.
However, under later questioning by Shelby, Skaggs said that the repeated improvement plans and pressure to change the way she taught decreased her joy in her job and her confidence in herself. She said she didn't seek work as a teacher after her contract was not renewed because she had been told she “wasn't worthwhile as a human being to teach other kids.”
She said the constant remediation suggestions made her feel humiliated and degraded.
The case, which is expected to last three days, will continue Tuesday.