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South Washington County Schools settles racial discrimination lawsuit for $75,000; district denies wrongdoing

South Washington County Schools is paying $75,000 to settle a racial discrimination case.

Former school psychologist Michele Walker's federal lawsuit against the district and an administrator will be dismissed following the District 833 School Board's approval March 16 of a settlement agreement with Walker.

The district denies any wrongdoing in the case.

The settlement amount was determined by the district's former insurance carrier, Riverport Insurance. Riverport's contract gave the firm authority to settle claims without district approval, said Trevor Helmers, an attorney for the district.

Walker was seeking $75,000 in damages when she filed the lawsuit in 2015. Riverport will pay the settlement amount.

The settlement agreement says the two sides continue to disagree on the merits of Walker's claims and that Riverport wanted to resolve the dispute prior to trial "in order to avoid the burden and expense of protracted litigation."

Helmers said the largest federal jury award in a similar case in the past 15 years was around $500,000 plus attorney fees.

"While we believe we are in a very strong factual position on this case, there is an element of risk any time you go to a jury trial," he told the board.

In 2014, Walker filed a state complaint against the district and administrator Julie Nielsen after Walker's contract as a school psychologist was not renewed.

At the time, Nielsen was Middleton Elementary School principal and Walker's supervisor. Nielsen now is an assistant superintendent.

The state claim was dismissed. Walker then sued in federal court claiming racial discrimination and retaliation in her contract nonrenewal.

Walker, who is black, claimed in her lawsuit that she had generally positive performance evaluations the first couple years of her district employment. However, she alleged, she was then not renewed after her dispute with a colleague over a black student's special education referral.

Nielsen, who is white, had recommended Walker receive a continuing contract, but then reversed the recommendation. The district disputed Walker's account of her non-renewal, citing in court documents ongoing performance-related as reasons she was denied a continuing contract.

Helmers told the board that Nielsen did nothing wrong and was well within her rights as a principal in her actions.

"As pointed out in our briefing to the court, no evidence of any racism or retaliation by Julie was ever presented at any point during the discovery process in this case, and she is an employee whose reputation should be above reproach," Helmers said. "It is extremely unfortunate that she was singled out in this litigation, and that her reputation has been harmed by being linked to this case."

The school board met in closed session to discuss the lawsuit and returned in open session to vote 6-0 in favor of the settlement. Michelle Witte was absent.

Helmers said the settlement payment should not affect the district's insurance rates.

Walker's attorney could not be reached for comment.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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