The former principal of St. Ann Catholic School alleges in a federal lawsuit she was terminated because she took a stance against some people associated with the school who discriminated against Hispanics.
In a seven-page lawsuit filed Feb. 10 in U.S. District Court in Birmingham, Maria Nolen, who served as the school’s principal from July 2012 until December 2014, alleged the school trumped up embezzlement allegations against her after she would not stop reprimanding a secretary for making disparaging remarks about Hispanic students at the school.
The secretary, Veronique Edington, no longer works at the school. Her husband, John Edington, continues to serve on St. Ann’s school board, but he denied that he or his wife had anything to do with Nolen’s termination.
“To any extent, suggesting that I had something to do with her termination is not true,” John Edington said Tuesday.
The Edingtons, along with the Diocese of Birmingham, St. Ann Catholic School, Raymond Remke, Fran Lawlor, Beverly Crowder and Scott Brown are listed as defendants in the lawsuit.
Brown is the director of operations for Tennessee Valley Printing Co. Inc., which owns The Decatur Daily. He serves on St. Ann’s advisory board. Brown said he could not comment on the lawsuit because he had not been officially served.
According to the lawsuit, Remke was Nolen’s direct supervisor and cleric in charge at the Decatur school, and Lawlor is superintendent in charge of the parochial school system for the Birmingham diocese. Crowder is a former principal at the school. Neither could be reached for comment.
Nolen denied embezzling money and is asking for back pay, compensatory and punitive damages, and attorney fees.
St. Ann’s current principal, David Weimer, has been at the school since July.
“I’m brand new, and I don’t know what went on in the past,” he said.
Weimer said all other questions would have to go to the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham. Officials with the diocese did not return calls.
The situation Nolen said led to her separation from St. Ann’s is linked to the Alabama Accountability Act, which put Brookhaven Middle School on the state’s failing school list. The act gave parents of students in failing schools tax credits and provided scholarship money for them to attend private schools.
Before she became principal, Nolen’s lawsuit said, the school “suffered serious financial hardship and a significant decrease in enrollment.” She said St. Ann had 54 students, so she focused on increasing enrollment by organizing outreach programs, some of which targeted Decatur’s Hispanic community.
St. Ann's goes from pre-K to eighth grade.
Enrollment increased to 90 students by August 2012, the lawsuit states. It's unclear how many of those students came from Brookhaven. For the 2013-14 school year, Nolen said, she organized the school’s scholarship program, which received public money because of the Accountability Act.
According to the lawsuit, the school received more than $176,000 for tuition payments and that money was used “to give need-based scholarships to under-privileged students.” She did not say how many students, but said many of them “had Hispanic national origins.”
As the program grew, Nolen said, she hired Veronique Edington as her secretary to help with the scholarship program. Nolen alleges Edington made derogatory comments toward Hispanic students and refused to assist in other programs involving Hispanic students.
In one instance, Nolen said, Veronique Edington refused to help organize a scholarship assistance program for Hispanic applicants and she alleged she overheard the secretary tell another employee, “Can you believe how stupid Ms. Nolen is to think that I am going to give up my Saturday to help these people?”
After she reported the incident to superiors, including John Edington, Nolen said she was called to a meeting and told to stop reprimanding Veronique Edington.
Nolen said she refused, and Veronique Edington resigned “on or about Oct. 24, 2014.”
In November 2014, Nolen said Brown and John Edington “continually” criticized her leadership during a financial presentation to the advisory board.
“Brown concluded the criticism by commenting that the school would not be receiving so much money if it were not accepting under-qualified Hispanic applicants,” Nolen stated in the lawsuit.
She said the Hispanic students who received help from the scholarship fund passed an entrance exam.
On Dec. 10, 2014, Nolen said, Remke wrote a letter accusing her of embezzlement and demanded her immediate resignation.
Nolen said she resigned two days later and did not go back to the school until the “beginning of 2015” when she went to visit her grandson. She said she was told that if she entered school property again, she would be arrested.
Nolen could not be reached for comment and her attorney, Stan McDonald, of Huntsville, did not return calls.
Nolen alleges advisory board members used their positions and financial clout as benefactors to “maliciously and intentionally” interfere with her employment contract.
According to the contract, which was attached as an exhibit to the lawsuit, Nolen made $61,058 annually.