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Former Metlakatla teachers sue Southeast Alaska school district

Posted: July 10, 2011 - 7:29pm

KETCHIKAN — Six former Annette Island School District teachers are suing the Metlakatla-based district, alleging they were not retained by the school board on the basis of race.

The plaintiffs, who are seeking at least $600,000, are Jennifer Erbelding, Shannon Dodge, Rebecca Scribner, Nevada Benton, Jodie Taylor and Mary Montgomery.

The school district denies the allegations.

The lawsuit — filed in Ketchikan Superior Court in February — says the school board decided last year not to retain the six. Dodge is Aleut and the other five are Caucasian.

Metlakatla, Alaska’s only Indian reservation, is a Tsimshian community.

According to the complaint, the board opted to retain two other teachers, one who is Tsimshian and the other who allegedly has “personal ties” to the school district’s superintendent, Eugene Avey.

“In response to the decision of the AISD board not to retain them, Dodge, Scribner and Benton immediately submitted resignations from their teaching positions at AISD, due to the extraordinary harm that would be done to their teaching careers from having their non-retentions be implemented,” the complaint states. “After first challenging their non-retentions, Erbelding, Montgomery and Taylor subsequently also resigned from their teaching positions at AISD.”

The lawsuit refers to a memorandum released to the community by that the school district after the resignations prompted discussion in Metlakatla.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Terry Venneberg provided a copy of the memo to the Ketchikan Daily News. In the memo, Avey notes the district’s strategic plan “contains a fundamental belief that a major emphasis is to hire locally and keep highly effective teachers.”

The memo notes a preference for hiring local Native teachers, according to the Daily News.

The document states that “renewing all elementary classroom teachers would tenure every (kindergarten through fifth-grade) teacher besides one. Tenure is essentially career long employment rights. Considering sovereign native rights, we try to provide equity in local hire. We have been receiving one local native application annually in the past two years.”

The complaint states that the decision to not retain the six teachers was made on the basis of their race. (and) constituted unlawful employment discrimination under the constitution and statutes of the State of Alaska.”

Venneberg said the Annette Island School District is a political subdivision of the State of Alaska, and is subject to state laws regarding hiring practices.

The school district through its attorney, Allen Clendaniel, denied the allegations, including the contention that one of the retained teachers has a relationship with the superintendent.

The response, which does not elaborate or give reasons for the denials, asks the court to dismiss the lawsuit.

Clendaniel said the district made its decision because of performance issues, not race. The resignation of the teachers makes the complaint moot, he said.

The plaintiffs were not tenured, and therefore were not entitled to a renewed contract, Clendaniel said.

The memo is not proof of racial discrimination, he said.

“I think it’s being completely misinterpreted by the teachers and their attorney,” Clendaniel said.

Clendaniel and Venneberg said there have been no settlement discussions. Venneberg said the depositions will be taken in the fall and a trial is tentatively scheduled for February.

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