Editor's note: This article has been updated to include a statement from Deborrah Skaggs.
Jurors decided Wednesday that the Van Alstyne Independent School District did not discriminate against former teacher Deborrah Skaggs because of her age when the board of trustees voted in 2015 not to renew her contract.
The verdict took just a little over two hours to reach and ended a suit that began in March when Skaggs sued, saying that the district had forced her out due to her age. She said Van Alstyne Middle School Principal Ryan Coleman asked her about her plans to retire after she attended a retirement seminar in 2012. She said she told him she did not plan to retire because her husband had died and she could not afford to quit working.
Skaggs said Coleman told her that if she retired she would have more time to spend with her grandchildren. She said that when she declined, her job reviews, which had previously been glowing and high scoring, started going downhill. She said she was placed on improvement plans that became more onerous as they went along.
The district denied any wrongdoing in its dealings with Skaggs, and said Coleman went out of his way to try to help her bring her teaching methods up to the standards the district wanted met.
Attorney D. Craig Wood, along with Meredith Prykryl Walker, represented the district. After the verdict, Wood said that it is always difficult when the district has to let an employee go, however, the district’s focus has always been on doing what is in the best interest of the district’s students.
Brandon Shelby, who represented Skaggs, said he told her all along that there is no telling what a jury could do with the case. He said when the jury was out more than two hours he really thought they had decided to support Skaggs on at least the first question of whether or not her age was a motivating factor in her losing her job. He said he was surprised when he learned they never got past that question. Shelby, who generally represents municipalities, said it was different being on the plaintiff side of the courtroom but he took the case because Skaggs is a longtime family friend. After she left the courtroom, his client said she sees the week as a positive thing even though she lost.
“Today was a victory as I see it,” Skaggs said in a written statement. “The goal of this whole trial was to bring to light what has and is taking place within the Van Alstyne ISD. I wanted to make it known that I was pushed out the door. This type of action has been taking place since the change in administration. When the superintendent came on board, a lot of great long time teachers were pushed out. They may have moved on to other districts but a majority of them were most likely asked to retire, resign — for a good reference — or face nonrenewal. Some of these teachers chose to remain silent because they are actively involved with the community, have kids and grandkids in VAISD or just thought it wasn’t worth the fight.
"I took this opportunity to make it known that I was not going to take it lightly. It was ironic in the trial that the superintendent had no idea how many teachers were in the district or how many had left. The goal of the trial was to allow the public to hear what is taking place. It is strange that this case has gone on for two years now and after multiple settlement offer refusals, I was not successful today. You see if I took the settlement, the case would go away.”
She added that she is not sure if she wants to appeal the case or not.
“after two years and at least getting the case out in the open, this may be just what is needed. You see the overall goal isn’t about money; it is about treating others with respect, being honest and telling the truth. I think that many are aware of the shady aspects that have been taking place at VAISD and feel it is time the truth came out,” she said.
During the three-day trial, the jury saw many of the assessments of Skaggs’ teaching that were written during her last three years of teaching in Van Alstyne. They also heard each side’s representation of what those assessments meant and what motivated the people who were writing them. The district said the only motivation for the assessments was to help Skaggs meet the district’s expectations of her as a teacher.
Skaggs said the motivation was to humiliate her and cause her to retire.
In his closing arguments, Shelby cautioned the jury to ask the question: What was really going on when the assessments Skaggs received changed within a matter of months. He pointed out that the jury had asked school representatives how many teachers over the age of 60 worked at the district. He also asked the jury to ask themselves if the board would have voted not to renew her contract if she had not been placed on the growth plans. Skaggs contended the growth plans were based on her refusal to retire.
“They did this because she said no,” Shelby told jurors.
He urged the jury to think about what it would take to compensate Skaggs for “three years of hell,” when they started to consider the amount of damages they should give Skaggs.
Walker told the jury to think about the documentation that they had been shown that pointed to the effort Coleman put into helping Skaggs try to improve her teaching.
“She wasn’t willing to put fort the effort to make changes,” Walker said. She said Coleman was just trying to remedy the deficiencies he saw in her teaching.
The case was heard in the Magistrate’s Courtroom at the Chase Bank building with Magistrate Judge Christine Nowak presiding.