Black Ex-School Official in Phoenix Sues Over Alleged Discrimination by Latinos

Karen Williams, former superintendent of Phoenix's Alhambra Elementary School District, claims in a lawsuit filed this week that the district's governing board fired her because she's not a Latina.

Williams, who's black, served in the position from July 2010 until March 2015, when the district's five-member governing board voted 3-2 to deny her a new contract and installed an interim superintendent. In the federal complaint, Williams alleges that the main reason she wasn't kept on is because two governing board members "conspired" to ensure the next superintendent would be a Hispanic who supported a union called the Alhambra District Education Association.

Williams made the allegations previously during open district meetings in March. Now she's asking a judge to find that the board committed racial discrimination and violated Arizona's open meetings law, plus seven other counts related to the flap. Most of her ire is directed at board member Robert Zamora, with some left over for board clerk Mari Alvarado and board member Ray Martinez.

"Zamora aggressively and forcefully reiterated that as he had told Williams’ predecessor in the past, and was informing her now, that the district superintendent should reflect the Latino community demographic," the complaint says in describing an encounter between Zamaro and Williams not long after she was hired. Zamora, the complaint says, had opposed her hiring for similar reasons and tried to keep her salary well below that of her predecessor — though it's ranged from $185,000 to $199,000 since 2015, records show.

Zamora once asked her to try to hire more Hispanics to the district's administration. She refused, the complaint says, telling him she'd hire the best people to do the job. Other board members and various district employees told her that Zamora was gunning for her because he "intended on replacing her with a male Latino superintendent. Other employees further reiterated that Zamora intended to remove Williams from Alhambra in order to procure union recognition status for ADEA," the complaints states.

Though she achieved stellar performance reviews in her first few years, her 2014 evaluation contained several negative reports. Her scores were brought down by very low marks by Zamora, the complaint states: "When Williams challenged the board to justify Zamora’s low scores, the board was unable to do so and, as a result, removed the unsatisfactory comments from her 2014 performance evaluation."

In a March 2 special board meeting, Williams gave an "impassioned speech" in which she criticized the "breach" of her contract, sparking Zamora to say her opinion was "ridiculous." Zamora, Alvarado, and  Martinez voted 3-1 to look for a new superintendent.

Williams gave another speech in another public meeting a few weeks later, saying she wanted to keep her job and complaining she was being discriminated against.

"After Williams had concluded speaking, and as had become customary since the board meeting held on February 19, 2015, a multitude of community members voiced their displeasure with the board and Alhambra with respect to their discriminatory treatment of Williams," the complaint states.

Following meetings of board members that violated Arizona's open meetings law, according to the complaint, the board voted to "renege" on a promise to renew her contract. In May, the board voted to make Mark Yslas the new superintendent.

Williams is seeking an unspecified amount for compensatory and punitive damages, plus attorney fees.

See below for the complaint:

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.