Former principal charges racial bias, sues Wake schools

A former African-American Wake County principal claims in a federal lawsuit that she was the victim of racial discrimination when she was reassigned to a lower-level position in the school district.

Wake school officials say Wanza Cole was removed as principal of West Cary Middle School in 2015 because she wasn’t keeping up with her duties of evaluating the school’s teachers. In her lawsuit, Cole contends she was was unfairly singled out by multiple white school district employees for a problem with evaluations that other principals also had.

Cole was reassigned to the position of director for intervention services. Her contract wasn’t renewed when it expired last month.

“Mrs. Cole has performed her job more than satisfactorily prior to her removal as Principal and was, at all times, qualified for her position,” Cole’s attorney, James E. Hairston Jr., says in the lawsuit. “Nonetheless, in the instant case, Plaintiff suffered disparate and blatantly discriminatory treatment before being removed from her position as principal, all on account of her race.”

West Cary Middle School Principal Wanza Cole. COURTESY OF THE WAKE COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS

As part of her argument about unequal treatment, Cole contrasts her situation with that of Doug Thilman, who was promoted in 2013 from principal of Cary High School to Wake’s assistant superintendent for human resources. Thilman was reassigned earlier this year to senior director in the transportation department.

In her complaint, Cole says Thilman, who is white, was removed as principal of Cary High “in the wake of a grade-changing scandal where it was later determined by the WCPSS, after investigation, that he was in fact complicit in the changing of grades not earned by particular students.”

Responding to a request for comment, Thilman said in an email Wednesday, “The allegation is simply not true.”

Lisa Luten, a Wake County schools spokeswoman, said the district does not comment on pending litigation other than through the court filing. In its legal responses, attorneys for the school system denied the grade-changing allegations.

The district’s attorneys also denied the discrimination allegations and defended the decision to reassign Cole.

“Giving poor performance evaluations and reassigning employees are all actions that the school system carries out in the regular course of supervising employees,” Wake says in a request to have the suit dismissed.

U.S. Chief District Court Judge James C. Dever III has rejected two requests by the school system to dismiss the lawsuit. No trial date has been set yet.

The lawsuit was initially filed July 2016 in Wake County Superior Court but was transferred to federal court.

North Carolina principals have wide-ranging authority, including hiring and evaluating teachers, promoting and retaining students and spending their school’s budget.

Wake typically reassigns some principals each school year, but officials don’t say the reasons publicly, citing personnel law. Cole’s lawsuit offers a look at the normally behind-the-scenes process.

In December 2014, Cole was notified that Wake’s human resources department was looking into a complaint from two white teachers about how West Cary Middle was conducting observations and evaluations of teachers. Cole had been principal of the school since 2007.

A human resources investigator met with some teachers, leading to a review saying data wasn’t being entered in a timely manner in the North Carolina Educator Evaluation System (NCEES).

In the lawsuit, Cole says NCEES has had several glitches since its inception. While she may have gotten behind in her evaluations, Cole says in the lawsuit that many other schools were behind, too. The lawsuit also says West Cary “fared better than most schools” at completing and entering the evaluations.

In what Cole says was her first-ever negative reviews, Area Superintendent Tim Locklair gave her poor mid-year and end-of-year evaluations. He recommended that Cole be reassigned in June 2015.

“No other principal has been recommended for removal nor removed from their position for issues relating to the NCEES observation and evaluation system,” the lawsuit says.

Cole was initially asked to accept reassignment as an assistant principal, which she rejected. She was ultimately reassigned to the position of director of intervention services, which is normally a lower-paid position, but she was allowed to keep her annual principal’s salary of $118,891.

In its legal documents, the school system says it was not a demotion because Cole’s salary wasn’t reduced.

Cole also says in the lawsuit that between 2007 and 2014 she received anonymous “vile” hate mail, including a letter saying “they” had someone in the human resources department who would get rid of her. Cole says the letters resumed again in 2016 with details about her situation that would be known only by certain school system employees.

Cole says the district did nothing to investigate the mail she received. In its response, the school district denies the allegations, saying it doesn’t have sufficient information.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui