A former Kansas City Public Schools administrator misused district funds and discriminated against a high school principal, then retaliated against the principal for blowing the whistle on the illegal activity, according to a lawsuit filed in Jackson County.
Thomas Herrera, who filed the lawsuit, alleged that the unlawful activity occurred from 2007, when he was principal at Northeast High School, through the day he resigned from East High School in July 2016.
“If the community is not aware of this, change will never happen,” Herrera told The Star. “The principals are afraid to speak up, because they want to keep their jobs. But if we don’t speak up, what’s going to happen to our kids?”
Herrera filed the civil suit last week in Jackson County Circuit Court. It seeks more than $75,000 in damages and names as defendants Kansas City Public Schools; Vickie Murillo, the district’s former chief academic and accountability officer; and Mary Laffey, a school district employee.
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The school district, in a prepared statement, said it “does not make public comments about active litigation.”
Murillo said in an email to The Star on Friday that the lawsuit “is completely without merit.”
“I am confident in the ability of the Kansas City Public Schools to defend this case,” she said.
Laffey did not respond to requests for comment.
Murillo left the district in April to become superintendent of schools for the Council Bluffs Community School District in Iowa. Laffey is director of the MU Partnership for Education Renewal at the University of Missouri. She also is a temporary employee in the Kansas City school district’s Department of Business and Finance.
Among Herrera’s allegations is that Murillo misused school district funds.
“On or about the 2007-2008 school years, Plaintiff discovered that Defendant Murillo was inappropriately using funds from Plaintiff’s school budget and on his school district credit card to fund personal purchases and purchases for expenses unrelated to Plaintiff’s school or from accounts that were designated for particular purposes,” the lawsuit alleges.
Herrera reported the concerns to school district officials, the lawsuit says. After that, he was reassigned to another school, but Murillo continued to be his supervisor, the lawsuit claims.
Years later, in 2016, the district reopened an investigation into the alleged misuse of funds and asked Herrera to provide another statement, the lawsuit says. Herrera complied, and within two weeks Murillo and Laffey “caused Plaintiff to be written up even though no cause existed for such action,” the lawsuit alleges.
Murillo and Laffey also caused Herrera to be threatened with termination, leading to health problems, the suit says.
During Herrera’s employment with the district, the lawsuit says, he “performed all duties of his positions as required, exceeded the expectations of his positions and received praise, raises, positive reviews and outstanding letters of recommendation for his work.”
Despite those qualities, the lawsuit alleges, Herrera — who is Latino — was “repeatedly and systematically passed over for promotions” while “employees who were less qualified but who were not of the same race and/or national origin of Plaintiff were promoted.”
Herrera contends that his race was a contributing factor in the decisions to pass him over for promotion. District officials also removed qualified staff from his buildings, undercut his ability to run a successful school and failed to provide an adequate facility comparable to those of non-Latino principals in the district, the lawsuit says.
The district retaliated against Herrera, the lawsuit says, because he complained that officials did not respond to his reports of unlawful employment practices. The retaliation, the lawsuit alleges, created a hostile work environment that affected Herrera’s health and forced him to resign.
Herrera, 58, filed a charge of discrimination with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights last year. On Aug. 17, the commission notified him that he had a right to file a civil suit under the Missouri Human Rights Act.
In his discrimination complaint attached to the lawsuit, Herrera said he was assigned to be principal at Northeast High School in 2007, replacing Murillo, who was promoted to the central office and became his immediate supervisor.
While principal of Northeast, it says, Herrera found that Murillo had been misusing school funds and making personal purchases on his school district credit card. After reporting the concerns, it says, Herrera was reassigned as principal of East High School, with Murillo continuing as his supervisor.
“Since that time, Ms. Murillo has engaged in harassment, discrimination and retaliation against Mr. Herrera,” the document says, adding that the school district was aware of the actions but allowed them to continue.
One person in the central office, the document says, made it clear “that immigrants are problems.”
“Others have made it known that the right ‘mix’ of ethnicity was required for certain positions, disqualifying Mr. Herrera from positions for which he was highly qualified,” it says.
When Herrera arrived at East, the document says, the building was empty. The school had just been opened as a replacement for Van Horn High School, which had become part of the Independence School District.
“He had no books, no desks, no chairs, no chalk, nothing except a phone plugged into the wall sitting on the floor of the principal’s office,” the document says.
When Herrera went to Murillo, his complaint said, he was given no assistance “and she attempted to use his emergency funds for the athletic program at another school.”
“As the summer wore on and Central Office — specifically Vickie Murillo — provided no assistance to open the building for over 1,000 students, Mr. Herrera took it upon himself to drive from school to school and get donations of excess supplies, desks, chairs and miscellany required to open the building,” according to the document.
Days before classes started, the central office began filling the school with the needed items, the complaint says.
“Three days before, there were still not enough desks and chairs so Mr. Herrera got donations of pickle buckets for students to sit on until the remaining supplies arrived,” it says. “Mr. Herrera complained about the state of the school and was given a written reprimand for his umbrage.”
Since then, the document says, East High has become a top school in the district.
“Despite being an urban core school with all of the attendant issues that surround that area, Mr. Herrera’s leadership has caused East High School to lead the others in attendance, test scores and graduation rates,” it says. “His sports teams have won district honors in four sports in the last year, despite having no locker rooms, no place to practice baseball except on a parking lot, and a condemned football stadium.”
Herrera has applied for numerous positions in the district’s central office so he could help other schools become the models that East has become, the document says, but he was told he would never get a position there. He also was promised other positions, including being a member of an advisory committee, but those never came to fruition, it says.
The document also says that the central office, through Murillo and Laffey, engaged in actions to undercut his effectiveness, such as firing his assistant principals without notice or cause and moving his leadership team out from under him.
On two dates in June 2016, the document says, Herrera was asked to give a statement to a man hired by the district to investigate Murillo. Shortly after that, it says, Murillo and Laffey set Herrera up for termination.
The action “appears to be retaliation for the statement he gave at the behest of the school district concerning Murillo’s discrimination and potential embezzlement of funds,” the document says.
The harassment, retaliation and discrimination forced Herrera to take time off for depression, anxiety and heart issues, the document alleges.
“Finally, on July 5, 2016, Mr. Herrera resigned from his position because of the unrelenting harassment, discrimination and retaliation he endured,” it says.
Murillo had been a top administrator in the school district’s central office. But in February, seven months after he came to Kansas City as its new superintendent, Mark Bedell announced a restructuring, and Murillo was among the administrators who would have had to reapply for her job. Her departure came 10 months after Herrera made his statement to an investigator claiming Murillo had misused school funds.
The reorganization plan came three months after the district announced it had scored at full accreditation level on the state-issued report that measures progress in several performance areas, including how well students did on standardized tests. Murillo was considered to be instrumental in helping the district score at the full accreditation level for the first time in 30 years.