DULUTH — The Duluth School District’s only black principal filed a lawsuit in federal court Monday alleging the district and its top leaders discriminated and retaliated against her in what the suit calls “transparent efforts to chill her speech and to undermine her ability to lead and make change where it is so desperately needed.”

Tonya Sconiers, who until this summer was principal of Denfeld High School, had been a vocal critic of district policies and an advocate for equity between the two high schools.

Denfeld, on the west side of the city, is more diverse and lower-income than East High School.

“Principal Sconiers isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers (respectfully and strategically) with her oft-recited refrain: ‘equal is not equitable,’ ” reads the lawsuit. “When she speaks, she is usually noticed and heard — she’s a strong, charismatic, and gregarious black woman in a largely white part of the country.”

The suit adds to a growing list of controversies at the district, which saw a school board member quit last week as it searches for a new superintendent to replace Bill Gronseth, who will retire at the end of the year.

At a news conference Monday morning Sconiers said in a statement: “It saddens me that the District attempted to silence me by threatening me, then suspending me, and now firing me. It saddens me that the district would rather retaliate and discriminate than listen.”

Amy Mace, an attorney for the Duluth School District, said Monday afternoon that officials had not yet reviewed the complaint, so they could not comment on specific allegations in the suit.

“The District vehemently denies the allegations that it or any of its administrators engaged in discrimination or violated Ms. Sconiers’ free speech rights,” Mace said in an e-mail. “The District’s disciplinary decisions related to Ms. Sconiers, including her discharge, were based solely on Ms. Sconiers’ inappropriate conduct.”

Sconiers was fired by the school board in July in a letter citing “immoral character, conduct unbecoming a principal, insubordination; failure without justifiable cause to act as a principal; and inefficiency in the management of a school,” according to the lawsuit.

Sconiers’ attorneys claimed her discharge, as well as a pair of unpaid suspensions during the last school year, were retaliation for questioning and publicly speaking out against the district for its policies and hiring practices.

Duluth Public Schools have long struggled to address achievement gaps between racial groups. According to the most recent standardized test data released by the Minnesota Department of Education, the district’s reading and math proficiency rates for black students are among the state’s lowest when compared to other large districts with 200 or more black students tested each year.

Sconiers has honed in on the district’s high schools in the past, criticizing policies that she says exacerbated the achievement gap between Duluth’s pair of secondary education institutions with notable demographic differences.

According to the state’s Department of Education, 26% of students at Denfeld High School identify with minority races and 49% of students receive free or reduced lunches. At East High School, those numbers are 12% and 15%, respectively.

In the 2018-19 school year, 47% of students tested at Denfeld High School met Minnesota standards in reading and 28% were considered proficient in math. On the other side of town, at East High School, 75% of students met state reading standards, while 45% did the same in math.

Mary Owen, a member of the Education Equity Alliance, said she's seen Sconiers show up regularly at school board meetings alongside a number of others who feel the district should be more transparent and accountable. But she never saw Sconiers "get up and protest or make any big demands."

"It does feel like she is being punished for her voice and daring to say anything about what's going on in our school district, when she's also a member of our school district," Owen said. "She has had children in our school district. She does have a right to be vocal." 

brooks.johnson@startribune.com • 612-673-4229 katie.galioto@startribune.com • 612-673-4478