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School Panelists Found Liable in Chicago Bias Suit

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A decision by a federal-court jury to hold four black members of a Chicago school council personally liable for dismissing a white principal has raised concern that the verdict will put a damper on Chicagoans' willingness to serve on the councils, observers said last week.

The jury on May 4 ordered the council members to pay punitive damages ranging from $1,000 to $3,000 each after finding that they had discriminated against Walter Pilditch, the former principal of Morgan Park High School, on account of his race.

Mr. Pilditch, who lost his job in 1990, filed suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and is the first Chicago principal to win such a "reverse discrimination'' lawsuit.

He was awarded $62,085 in compensatory damages for lost wages and the "pain and suffering'' caused by the council's decision.

At least half a dozen other principals have filed complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that they were discriminated against by their school councils because of their race, age, or gender, according to the Chicago Principals Association.

Ronald Samuels, the lawyer who represented the Morgan Park council members, said the jury's verdict sends a troubling message to the volunteer members of the city's 540 local school councils, which were set up under the 1988 Chicago school-reform law.

"They can't afford lawyers,'' Mr. Samuels said last week. "Secondly, to get exposed to this kind of liability for trying to do a job at their local school has a chilling effect on even wanting to serve.''

Before the first school councils were elected in 1989, state law was amended to protect council members from being held liable for their actions. The Chicago Board of Education pays all court costs, lawyers' fees, and judgments arising from lawsuits against the councils.

Legal Questions

But Peggy Gordon, the director of the Lawyers School Reform Project--which was not involved in Mr. Pilditch's case--said there appears to be some question about whether council members are indemnified against punitive damages, particularly when they are awarded in civil-rights cases.

"Based on the number of phone calls we have received, I would certainly say there's a great deal of concern out there,'' Ms. Gordon said. "I do think it is extremely important to get this resolved.''

The full impact of the case on the workings of the school councils cannot be determined until it has made its way through the appeals process, Ms. Gordon noted.

Donald R. Moore, the executive director of Designs for Change, a research and advocacy organization that has played an influential role in Chicago school reform, said the lawyers he had consulted believed it was "highly unlikely'' that the punitive damages would be upheld.

"All we have right now is a jury verdict,'' Mr. Moore said. "There's a long way until there is a final disposition of the case.''

Designs for Change and other local school-reform groups are likely to file friend-of-the-court briefs in the case when it is appealed, he added.

"Based on our knowledge of the case,'' he added, "we don't believe that a verdict of discrimination is warranted, nor do we believe anyone should be held liable for any punitive damages.''

No Formal Evaluation

Mr. Pilditch was among the first group of principals to come up for consideration for the four-year contracts that are awarded by the local school councils. (See Education Week, March 14, 1990.)

The 10 council members elected in October 1989 to govern Morgan Park High School were to decide whether to retain Mr. Pilditch in his job as principal or to hire someone else by the end of February 1990, according to Robert Berghoff, Mr. Pilditch's lawyer.

In order to be retained in his position, Mr. Pilditch needed six votes in his favor. During a Feb. 21, 1990, meeting, five of the council members voted to keep him in the job, one abstained from voting, and four voted against retaining the principal.

By law, council members are to conduct a formal evaluation of the principal. Mr. Berghoff said the Morgan Park council failed to do so and instead had a 45-minute discussion about him on the same night the vote was taken.

The council members were unable to agree on a replacement for Mr. Pilditch. Eventually, they ranked him last on a list of three candidates that was given to a district superintendent. The district superintendent chose the school's current principal, who is black.

Mr. Pilditch sued the four council members who voted against him and the abstaining member, charging that their decision was racially motivated. He also sued the district superintendent; the jury dismissed the complaint against him.

One of the defendants, a Hispanic woman, also was cleared of the complaint. Of the four blacks who were found to have discriminated against Mr. Pilditch, Calvin Pearce, the council chairman who abstained from voting, was ordered to pay the most in punitive damages.

Mr. Samuels, the lawyer for the council members, called the jury's decision to penalize Mr. Pearce for not voting "astounding.''

Circumstantial Evidence

During the 11 days of testimony in the trial, according to Mr. Samuels, Mr. Pilditch's lawyer "admitted that there was no testimony as to any kind of common plan, scheme, or design'' by the council members and no testimony of any "racially inflammatory remarks.''

In the absence of such evidence, Mr. Samuels contended, "the race of the people involved determined the outcome of the case.''

"The jury held that, if an incumbent principal was white and the persons voting on his retention were minority and he was not retained, that is sufficient grounds upon which to impose liability on the minority school-council members,'' he said.

But Mr. Berghoff, the lawyer for Mr. Pilditch, noted that discrimination cases rarely turn on hard evidence.

"People seldom admit that what they are doing is based upon discriminatory motive,'' he said. "What one has to look for, and the jury had to look for, is circumstantial evidence, and perhaps a little puff of smoke here or there that may have shown'' that the council members acted in a discriminatory manner.

In making its decision, the jury considered whether the "preponderance of the evidence'' supported the complainant's charges. Nine of the jurors were white; one was black.

A key factor in the verdict, Mr. Berghoff said, was the council members' repeated refusal to give a reason for their decision not to retain Mr. Pilditch.

The principal's ouster touched off a student walkout and a backlash in the community against the decision that resulted in the council members who had voted against Mr. Pilditch losing their seats in the 1991 elections.

Mr. Pilditch, who said he was "very pleased'' at the jury's verdict, stressed last week that he was "not against school reform and certainly not against the [local school councils].''

"Councils can do great things,'' he said, "but they also can do very bad things.''

Closely Watched Case

Mr. Pilditch, who is now the director of performing arts at Currie High School, said he is seeking reinstatement to his former position or compensation for the difference between what he now earns and what his former job paid.

The case was closely watched by other Chicago principals who have filed discrimination complaints with the E.E.O.C. or lawsuits, Mr. Pilditch said.

Bruce Berndt, the president of the Chicago Principals Association, said he welcomed the decision because it "establishes accountability for the council members, which is really lacking under the reform law.''

The principals' association was not involved with Mr. Pilditch's case.

In March, the association filed a federal suit seeking once again to overturn the method by which members of the school councils are elected. An earlier, state-court suit by the principals' group resulted in a 1990 Illinois Supreme Court ruling that the original election procedure was unconstitutional. A new voting procedure was developed last year. (See Education Week, July 31, 1991.)

"It is our contention,'' Mr. Berndt said, "that the new election process is no more constitutional this time than it was the first time.''

In addition, he said, the association is seeking compensation for the principals who were dismissed by local school councils that were "illegally'' elected in 1989.

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