Johnston Tensions Land in Court

Transferred Johnston High School teacher sues Austin ISD

A discrimination suit against AISD focuses on Johnston principal Tabita Gutierrez.
A discrimination suit against AISD focuses on Johnston principal Tabita Gutierrez. (Photo By John Anderson)

If there's one thing Johnston High School needs, it's experienced teachers. According to the most recent Texas Education Agency figures, more than half the teachers at the underenrolled, underperforming East Austin high school had in 2002-03 fewer than five years of experience. Yet at the end of last year, AISD administrators transferred a 12-year veteran teacher from Johnston to West Austin's Bowie High, a high-performing school where teachers tend to stick around: 65% have more than 10 years of experience.

The Johnston teacher, Katrina Hicks, didn't want to go. Last week, when the AISD board of trustees ruled against her grievance request to be sent back to Johnston, she announced she is suing the district for racial discrimination. Hicks is African-American. Her lawsuit, which cites a number of disagreements with Johnston principal Tabita Gutierrez preceding the transfer, will be heard in state court. Whatever the outcome, the case points to ongoing leadership challenges facing Johnston High, which has gone through about a principal a year for more than a decade.

"In her suit, Ms. Hicks wants to be made whole," said Gary Bledsoe, Hicks' attorney. "But the real loser here is Johnston High."

The details of Hicks' suit are as follows: In November 2003, three months after Gutierrez became principal, Hicks says she was the only one of four teachers, and the only African-American, not to be reimbursed for afterschool training in Spanish instruction. She also complains that the school didn't accommodate black students' requests to have a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, even though the school later had a large Cinco de Mayo celebration. The suit describes this as part of a larger pattern of discrimination by Gutierrez – and by extension, the district that backed her up.

"There was a warm relationship between most of the Hispanics and African-Americans at Johnston, but the new principal decided to change that and to emphasize issues and matters to favor Hispanics only," says the suit.

AISD officials say the other teachers were compensated because unlike Hicks, they are foreign language teachers who had received pre-approval to attend the class; and district officials say they have no record of Hicks requesting an MLK Day celebration.

The suit also complains of a lack of African-American representation on the principal-selection committee that eventually chose Gutierrez. According to AISD, only one voting member of the 10-person principal selection-committee was African-American; one African-American AISD human resources employee also served on committee, but was not a voting member. Six of the other members were Hispanic and two were Anglo. (Two African-American and one Hispanic student also served on the committee.) TEA figures show Johnston's student body is 79% Hispanic, 18% African-American, and 2% white.

The last straw for Hicks was her transfer, which came at the end of the 2003-04 school year. Some parents say they were outraged to lose Hicks. Parent Carol Garcia describes her as a model teacher, who doesn't just "teach and go home," but spent hours of personal time keeping parents involved with their children's education. Hicks headed up a Future Business Leaders afterschool club, and Garcia describes her popping by on weekends to remind her of bake sales, or to let her know her son was getting behind in his homework. She says Hicks was also an important influence on girls at Johnston. "She's a single mom herself, so she could tell the girls things like 'You don't need a boyfriend,' or 'You need to stay away from that boy.' She knew what a lot of the kids were going through, so she could have a personal relationship with them," she said.

In addition, parent Connie Baez says that Hicks wasn't the only longtime Johnston teacher to leave last year – in her eyes, there was a mass exodus of the school's best teachers. "When you've got that many good teachers all leaving at the same time, it's clear that there's a problem," she said. One who left was Margaret Houston, a veteran Anglo teacher of 11th grade English who was reassigned against her will to P.E. Bledsoe believes Houston was reassigned to punish her for raising the same issues Hicks did about the makeup of the principal selection committee. (Houston declined to comment for this article, saying she is "over it.")

Excluding the new international school-within-a-school, according to district records 22 of Johnston's 58 teachers are new to the school this year, and four teachers have resigned since the beginning of the school year. While AISD has yet to calculate this year's official turnover rate, that number appears to be a significant increase over the '03-'04 school year, when turnover was 17%, and the '02-'03 year, when it was 22%. One educator who left Johnston last year (and who refused to be identified for fear of retribution from a "vindictive" district) cites clashes with Gutierrez and says many teachers left for similar reasons. Gutierrez did not return phone calls seeking comment; it is district policy, however, not to comment on personnel matters.

"Last year a number of people left because they felt they had worked hard, but that it was a lost cause. How many of those people made that decision based on the principal? That I don't know," the former Johnstonite said.

However, Gutierrez is not without her supporters. At the recent winter carnival, several parents said the school is going in the right direction. Laura Taylor, who runs the Enlace Go Center at Johnston, says the principal has brought much-needed stability to the school. "I see a big difference in the students this year compared to last year," she said. "They know that, 'Hey, she's here for us. She's here to stay.'" And as Johnston is poised to serve as the pilot school for a districtwide high school redesign, strong, stable leadership is more important than ever.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

school district, Johnston High School, Austin ISD, Bowie High School, Katrina Hicks, Gary Bledsoe, Tabita Gutierrez, Carol Garcia, Connie Baez, Margaret Houston, Laura Taylor, AISD

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