DULUTH — The former Denfeld High School principal filed a federal lawsuit against Duluth Public Schools and key leaders Monday, Sept. 9.

Tonya Sconiers and her attorney filed a lawsuit against Duluth Public Schools, Superintendent Bill Gronseth and Assistant Superintendent Jeff Horton claiming a violation of First Amendment rights and discrimination based on race and sex. Sconiers is seeking monetary relief, an amount to be determined by a jury.

Duluth Public School said in a statement through its attorney, Amy Mace, of Rupp, Anderson, Squires & Waldsurger, P.A., that it has not yet had an opportunity to review the complaint in detail and therefore cannot comment on any specific allegations.

“Based on the representations Ms. Sconiers and her counsel have made to the media, the district vehemently denies the allegations that any of its administrators engaged in discrimination or violated Ms. Sconiers’ free speech rights,” the statement said. “The district’s disciplinary decisions related to Ms. Sconiers, including her discharge, were based solely on Ms. Sconiers’ inappropriate conduct.”

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Sconiers, along with her attorneys, held a news conference Monday morning.

“As principal, I have been entrusted by the parents and our community to ensure that decision-making, financing and hiring, which impact our students, are always made in their best interest,” Sconiers read from a prepared statement. "Difficult challenges mean difficult decisions and courageous leadership. Consequently, courageous leaders must stand up to the injustices of the status quo in policies and practices.”

One of Sconiers’ attorneys, Ben Kwan, said they filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court in Duluth on Monday alleging the district and key leaders retaliated against Sconiers for speaking out as a citizen on matters of “deep public concern.”

“Issues like educational equity, the opportunity gap, the achievement gap and most recently district hiring practices,” Kwan said at the news conference. “The complaint alleges that the district repeatedly retaliated against principal Sconiers for her speech, reprimanding her in December 2018, then suspending her without pay in March and May of this year.”

Kwan said six weeks after notifying the district in April that his law firm was investigating the basis of those unpaid suspensions, the district placed Sconiers on a paid administrative leave citing new allegations.

“Finally on July 29 the district informed principal Sconiers it intended to fire her,” Kwan said. “The complaint alleges that the district’s reasons for Principal Sconiers' discipline and discharge were ginned up to paper her file and provide the district with a cover for its real motivation, which we allege is retaliation and discrimination.”

Sconiers was given the opportunity to fight the termination through arbitration but has decided to withdraw her request for arbitration on Monday.

The complaint also alleges that the district discriminated against Sconiers based on sex and race.

“The district treated Principal Sconiers differently as a black woman going so far as to criticize things like the volume and the tone of her voice,” Kwan said.

Sconiers said she was saddened to be at odds with the district leadership and school district.

“It saddens me that the district attempted to silence me by threatening me, then suspending me and now firing me,” Sconiers said. “I will not be silenced. I refuse to let another year, another month or another day go by without holding our education system accountable for fair, just and equitable actions that benefit all students in Duluth Public Schools.”

(From left) Former Denfeld High School principal Tonya Sconiers sits alongside attorneys Ben Kwan and Ted Haller, at a press conference Monday, Sept. 9 about a lawsuit she filed against the Duluth Public Schools and two of its leaders. Adelle Whitefoot / awhitefoot@duluthnews.com
(From left) Former Denfeld High School principal Tonya Sconiers sits alongside attorneys Ben Kwan and Ted Haller, at a press conference Monday, Sept. 9 about a lawsuit she filed against the Duluth Public Schools and two of its leaders. Adelle Whitefoot / awhitefoot@duluthnews.com

Sconiers was first hired in Duluth in March 2000 to work as an assistant principal at Denfeld. She was appointed to principal in July 2012.

The lawsuit claims trouble for Sconiers started as far back as 2017 when she aligned herself with the Community-Based School Equity Initiative, a group of parents and community members who call for equity among the district. The group’s biggest push was for the Duluth School District to allocate compensatory education funds to the schools that generate them, a feat that was accomplished in 2018 after a resolution was passed by the School Board.

The lawsuit claims Sconiers was retaliated against for aligning herself with this group; for asking that “zero hour” no longer be offered and funds allocated elsewhere; for questioning hiring practices; and for reporting the district to the Minnesota Department of Education for misuse of funds.

The lawsuit also claims Sconiers was retaliated against for doing an on-camera interview with a documentary crew in October 2017, talking about opportunity gaps among students without permission from the district.

According to the complaint, Sconiers received a letter of reprimand on Dec. 21, 2018, was informed she was under investigation on Jan. 4 and underwent an interview with an outside attorney for the district on Jan. 11.

In March, Sconiers received an 11-page “Notice of Suspension, Notice of Deficiencies and Letter of Directives” in conjunction with the investigation and was suspended without pay for five school days, the complaint said.

Sconiers informed Duluth Public Schools on April 29 that she had engaged lawyers to investigate her five days of unpaid suspension served in March.

Sconiers received another letter of suspension on April 30 and was given a one-day unpaid suspension and was warned that she may face “immediate discharge,” the complaint claims. The complaint alleges that Sconiers was told the suspension was due to students' private data being exposed, but she believes it was retaliatory.

On June 18, Sconiers was informed she was being put on administrative leave following allegations against her, allegations the complaint claims Sconiers still isn’t aware of.

On July 29, the School Board voted to terminate Sconiers. After receiving the letter of termination, Sconiers exercised her right to put a hold on discharge pending a hearing pursuant to Minnesota’s Teacher Tenure Act. On Monday, Sconiers withdrew her request for arbitration.

Former Duluth East High School Principal Laurie Knapp has taken over the role at Denfeld on a substitute basis. Knapp had retired in 2016.