Jurors in the federal district magistrate court in Sherman have heard all of the evidence they will get in Deborrah Skaggs’ case concerning age discrimination against the Van Alstyne Independent School District.
Skaggs claims the district failed to renew her teaching contract at the end of the 2014-2015 school year even though she had worked for the district since 1998. She said the action was taken because of her age and pointed to questions she said Van Alstyne Middle School Principal Ryan Coleman asked her as proof. She said he asked her repeatedly if she planned to retire and said she would be able to spend more time with her grandchildren. He later asked her, she said, if she would consider taking a job as a teacher’s aide instead of continuing on as a teacher. She said she would not and claims that is when the plan to get rid of her started.
Both sides rested their cases Tuesday afternoon. Attorneys for Van Alstyne ISD asked Magistrate Judge Christine Nowak to throw the case out. Attorney Meredith Walker said Skaggs and her attorney Brandon Shelby had failed to prove their basic case for age discrimination. Walker also asked that Nowak kick the case out of court based on what the district said is the fact that the school board would have taken the same action of nonrenewal even if Coleman had started the proceedings based on Skaggs’ age.
Nowak denied the second request but said she would take the first one under advisement overnight. Both sides are set to deliver closing arguments to the jury Wednesday. Each side will try to get the jurors to see that a preponderance of the evidence points to their version of what went on shortly before Skaggs lost her job.
For the past two days, the jury has listened as attorneys went over reports from Skaggs’ last few years of teaching at Van Alstyne Middle School. They looked at reports about the informal class visits that administrators made to her class and about the formal reviews she received at the end of each year. They also looked at and heard all about two different improvement plans that Coleman put Skaggs on during her last years of teaching. The plans, Coleman said, were aimed at helping her bring her teaching level up to the point where she could help her 7th grade students get better scores on the STAAR writing test. Skaggs’ attorney asserted the plans were actually meant to drive her from teaching.
Skaggs testified that the constant worry about the plans and her attempts to complete them robbed her of the joy of teaching to the point that she lost confidence in her professional abilities and didn’t seek a new teaching job when she wasn’t offered a new contract at Van Alstyne.
Superintendent said age not a factor
Van Alstyne Superintendent John Spies said he thought too many of Van Alstyne’s teachers received glowing reviews when he first came to the district. He said he spent time with the administrators teaching them how to be tougher in the review process. Though Coleman had previously given Skaggs glowing reviews, the first year with Spies as superintendent, that changed.
While her scores on her end of the year assessment dropped, Shelby pointed out, the comments on that report were still positive. Coleman said the comments were supposed to help her find her way to improve her teaching with regard to the writing process. He said she spent too much time working with her students on things like vocabulary, spelling and grammar and not enough time on higher level thinking and the writing process. He repeatedly urged her to give her students more writing projects including those that mirrored the STAAR writing test.
He testified that the first remediation plan he put her on was made up of things like books to read and teachers to watch. She successfully completed that plan. However, he said, the next group of test scores from the STAAR test showed no improvement in her students’ writing samples. He said he didn’t put her on another improvement plan because he was hoping she would take the summer and use the things she had learned on the first in the next year.
That year came and the went with Skaggs getting mostly positive remarks on her classroom assessments, though lower scores on her end of the year assessment.
Coleman testified that he kept looking for signs that she was working with the students to help them get better scores on the writing portion of the STAAR test and she wasn’t doing it.
Both Skaggs’ attorney and the district’s went through a package of emails that Coleman used to discuss his concerns with Skaggs and lay out what he expected of her, in addition to the various reports from assessments.
Skaggs said the constant remediation was humiliating to her and made her “feel like my last 17 years (had) been for nothing,”
Shelby pointed out that while Skaggs’ students were not doing better than all of the seventh grade students in the state on the writing portion of the test, they were doing better than some of the local similar sized districts in the area. Spies and Coleman both said the plan wasn’t for Van Alstyne students to be better than similar districts at the test. The plan was for them to be better than any other students in the state. They said it wasn’t enough that Van Alstyne students were doing well on other parts of the test. To be a premiere district, their students have to be better at the test overall than any other students in the state and teachers have to be prepared to help students achieve that level of competence. The school district said not hiring Skaggs back was based on her lack of desire or ability to get into step with that program, not her age.
The last witness of the day testified that the board of trustees never considered Skaggs’ age when determining if it wanted to follow Spies suggestion that they not renew her contract for the next year. Debra Nance said they looked at the evidence presented by Spies and Coleman during the hearing and never considered Skaggs’ age. She said Skaggs had the option of talking to them at the hearing but decided not to do so. When asked how much the district saved by hiring a teacher to replace Skaggs, Nance said she didn’t really know. She was told it was $3,400 and when asked if that was a lot of money given the district’s $16 million budget and she said it was not.
Nowak allowed jurors to present her with questions that they wanted asked in the case. After going over the questions with counsel for both sides, Nowak asked some of the questions. Jurors wanted to know how old Skaggs was when her contract was not renewed. She answered that she was 61 then and is 64 now. Jurors also asked why Coleman didn’t ask the other two teachers who had gone to a retirement seminar with Skaggs if they were going to retire. He said he didn’t think they were close to retiring. Jurors asked if there were other teachers in the district close to Skaggs’ age at the time that she retired and were told that teachers’ ages ranged from the 20s to near retirement. The jury also wanted to know whether her students’ scores on the STAAR test was the only reason Skaggs was put on a growth plan and Coleman said “absolutely not.”
Jurors also asked him how many teachers are generally on a growth plan at once. He said it depends upon the year. The jury wanted to know if any teacher with more experience than Skaggs or as old or older than her had ever been put on such a plan. He said he thought he could recall one such person.
Closing arguments are set to start at 9 a.m. Wednesday.