Flint, MI—Flint Community Schools Superintendent Anita Steward filed a lawsuit against the Flint Board of Education Sept. 8.
The suit alleges board members, individually and collectively, prevented Steward from performing her duties as superintendent by overstepping their authority and “thumbing their noses” at board bylaws, rules, and regulations.
The suit also alleges that when Steward reported the board’s violations to then-district attorney Kendall Williams, the board retaliated with threats, discriminatory acts, gag orders, and attempted to fire her while she was on family and medical leave.
President Carol McIntosh, Treasurer Laura MacIntyre, Assistant Treasurer/Secretary Joyce Ellis-McNeal, and Secretary Danielle Green are also being sued individually. Trustee Adrian Walker is the only board member not individually named in the suit.
They all face the same charges: Whistleblower Protection Act Violation, a law that protects those who report violations of the law; Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on “religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, or marital status;” breach of contract; and gross negligence.
Steward’s attorney, Tom Pabst, said board members prohibited Steward from speaking to her own secretary, Executive Assistant Monaca Elston, which prevented her from doing her job.
The suit also alleges that MacIntyre, the sole white member of the board, has shown favor towards Elston, who is also white, “in order to marginalize and minimize” Steward, who is Black. By press time, MacIntyre did not respond to request for comment.
Pabst said he would not reveal the details of MacIntyre’s behavior but that he “wouldn’t have alleged it” if he didn’t think he could prove it in court.
In August, the district’s Director of Finance, Ayunna Dompreh, also filed a complaint against McIntyre for discriminatory behavior.
Tensions between the board and Steward have been mounting since Jan. 2021, though she had been rated as “highly effective” by the board during a performance review in December 2020.
Board members expressed they felt like the administration was withholding information and refusing to answer questions.
Steward’s attorney, Tom Pabst said board members were not following procedure to obtain the information they wanted.
“There’s a bylaw that says there’s a specific form to fill out. If you want information, fill it out, turn it in, and you’ll get the information promptly. But they didn’t want to do that,” Pabst said.
The suit alleges Williams informed the board of the policy and urged them to follow policy, but they refused.
At the meeting, McIntosh said the main issue was transparency and that it was “difficult” for the board to get information from administrators. She said that when she requests information, she is accused of “threatening” the superintendent.
Steward said she was following procedure.
“I’m going to follow the bylaws. I’m going to follow the policies. Unfortunately, your bylaws say, if there’s a request, fill out the form, and yes, we have 30 days to turn things around,” Steward said. “And so, if I’m receiving a verbal warning because I’m asking us to follow this, I understand that and there’s nothing else that I can do about it.”
The board officially voted to terminate Williams at a board meeting June 16. The lawsuit alleges this was in part due to his opinion of the board’s actions.
They also issued a verbal warning to the superintendent for performance issues, lack of transparency, and running a “hostile” administration while she was on leaving caring for her sick father, the lawsuit states.
Part of the lawsuit also claims the board enforced an “unlawful gag order.”
In April, several board members were surprised when news of a potential $200 million in funding from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation surfaced. The funding was part of a memorandum of understanding—a nonbinding agreement between several entities—that outlined the construction of five new school buildings, fighting blight in surrounding neighborhoods, and partnering with local organizations to work with Flint students.
Some board members wanted to know why they’d never heard of the MOU before them.
“I am speaking as an individual board member, not as the board, but I’m dismayed with the fact that this is the eighth iteration of an MOU that I’ve only just now seen starting last week,” MacIntyre said at an April 21 board meeting.
Shortly after, the board barred Steward from speaking to community partners without the presence of the board president or their representative.
A two-day ordeal ensued, in which the Mott Foundation paused all funding—an average of $8.8 million per year—to Flint Community Schools because of the communication ban. After community members expressed outrage over the decision, the foundation ended the pause.
Pabst said Steward took medical leave Aug. 30 due to overwhelming pressure from the board.
He also claimed the board attempted to fire her in a special board meeting Sept. 1.
During the meeting, board members went into a closed session to discuss the “superintendent’s performance,” according to the agenda. When they came out, they appointed Assistant Superintendent Kevelin Jones to acting superintendent and Keiona Murphy, former director of federal, state, and local programs, to acting assistant superintendent.
“Our superintendent, she went out on FMLA. That was not anything that the board decided or anything that was because of performance,” Jones said. “This is a normal action. When one of our teammates are out, we step in, and we get the work done. That’s what we’re doing right now. There is not much change going on right now.”
Jones said the superintendent is expected to resume her duties Sept. 15, but Pabst said this is unlikely.
“She’s going to follow her doctor’s orders. And I doubt the doctor’s going to tell her she’s okay to come back. I mean, this takes a toll on someone,” Pabst said.
The board’s “misconduct” and violations of Michigan Legislature, according to the suit, caused Steward several injuries, including loss of employment, loss of wages and earning capacity, emotional and mental “anguish,” and “incurrence of actual attorney’s fees and costs” to enforce her legal rights.
The resulting monetary damages “exceed” $100,000, the lawsuit states.
Pabst said he’s prepared to fight for Steward.
“This is just outrageous what they did to Anita. It was dumb. It was counterproductive. It hurt the kids of Flint. And they didn’t care,” Pabst said.
McIntosh said she had no comment at this time regarding the lawsuit. District attorney Charis Lee did not respond to request for comment by press time.
This situation is ridiculous and serves nobody well. Ms. Steward’s career will not be well-served by filing suit against her employer! (“Ms. Steward, could you please tell us in what manner you left your last employer?”) Ms. Steward and the board should have quietly negotiated her separation agreement and bought out her contract if they couldn’t work with her. (They have a LOT of experience buying off superintendents, but they had fired their longstanding attorney who would have negotiated it–because they didn’t like his legal advice–maybe that wasn’t a possibility.)
By the way, I understand that the memorandum of understanding was developed by the Mott Foundation and Bilel Tawab–whom the board ALSO fired because they couldn’t get along with him! (Maybe they fired him before he could brief them on it…)
The board members who are being sued look like pompous fools who don’t know their role or how to effectively communicate with their administrators. This board is obviously incompetent, and the offending members need to be recalled for the sake of the children of Flint. As things stand, nobody with an ounce of sense would apply for the two currently vacant positions!
Mr. Jordan, you couldn’t be more right!
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