MANKATO — A former Mankato West High School special education math teacher is suing the school district, claiming she was fired due to her age and in retaliation for blowing the whistle on a principal at another school district for falsifying student transcripts.
Joleen Armstrong, 51, of Good Thunder, was hired by Mankato Area Public Schools at the beginning of last year’s school year. Her lawsuit claims she has 16 years of teaching experience, including the six years she worked as a math teacher at the River Bend Area Learning Center in New Ulm before taking the job at West High School.
While Armstrong was working in New Ulm she was asked by Special Education Director Linda Wintz to complete an evaluation of the learning center’s principal, Synova Nelson. It was in that evaluation during the 2008-2009 school year that Armstrong accused Nelson of giving students credit for classes they hadn’t completed, according to the lawsuit.
When Wintz didn’t take any action against Nelson that year, Armstrong reported what she had found to her union. The union investigated and Nelson resigned in April 2010. Wintz retired at the end of the 2010 school year and is now working with South Central Service Cooperative, an organization that works with Mankato Area Public Schools.
Armstrong’s lawsuit claims she received positive performance evaluations from Sherri Blasing, West High School assistant principal, in November. She also claims she only received positive feedback about her job performance until she received a negative performance evaluation from Blasing in February.
Armstrong was fired by John Klaber, the Mankato district’s special education director, in March.
The retaliation allegation in Armstrong’s lawsuit claims she was fired by Mankato Area Public Schools, also referred to as Independent School District 77, in retaliation for report against the principal in New Ulm.
That portion of the lawsuit claims Klaber and Wintz knew each other because they served on a legislative committee together, and that Klaber has close ties with New Ulm’s special education director. It also says Wintz and Blasing live near each other.
“While working for ISD 77, Ms. Armstrong became aware that many of the administration for ISD 77 had close personal and professional ties with individuals at ALC,” Armstrong’s attorney, Philip Villaume, said in a news release. “Because of those close ties and as a result of previously reporting fraudulent transcripts, Ms. Armstrong was retaliated against.”
The lawsuit also claims Armstrong was fired because of her age, noting that someone younger was hired to replace her.
The Mankato school district’s response to Armstrong’s complaint said that her November evaluation wasn’t as positive as her lawsuit claims.
“The evaluation also identified needs for increased student engagement, greater personal connections to students and improved instructional strategies,” the answer said.
It also claims Armstrong failed to mention another evaluation in October.
“The instruction model used by (Armstrong) and her lack of understanding of the reasons for her student’s performance were cited as areas of concern,” the answer said.
Blasing also had several conversations with Armstrong between November and February that cited classroom concerns, the response said.
It also said Armstrong was fired “with a legitimate, non-discriminatory rationale and based upon appropriate educational practice.”
The lawsuit was filed by Armstrong in August in Blue Earth County District Court before being moved to federal court by the school district.