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Roanoke County educator sues school board over pay disparity, alleging sex-based discrimination

Roanoke County educator sues school board over pay disparity, alleging sex-based discrimination

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An instructional supervisor is suing the Roanoke County School Board for sex-based wage discrimination, alleging that the county school system pays her less than male employees in the same position.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, says there is “no legitimate reason” for the school system to pay Roanoke County Public Schools Supervisor of Science Erin Barnett less than her “similarly situated” male colleagues.

Barnett makes $258.45 per day, while a male supervisor of physical education, Kevin Burcham, makes $284.55 per day, the complaint states.

Barnett is seeking equitable pay, compensatory damages, back pay, front pay, prejudgement interest and attorney fees.

Roanoke County School Board Chair Mike Wray said Thursday that the board was unable to comment about litigation. The lawsuit had not yet arrived at the school board office, Wray said.

Barnett’s lawyer, Thomas Strelka, said in an interview that the school system has been aware of the pay differential.

“They are making it much more of an issue than it needed to be,” Strelka said.

Now, he said, a lawsuit will take time, money and resources.

“Is that not a disservice to the students and the taxpayers of Roanoke County?” he asked.

Roanoke County schools hired Barnett in 2006 as a science teacher. In 2018, Barnett was promoted and became the division’s supervisor of science. As a teacher she earned $62,040; she received $48,533 in base pay, plus additional compensation for serving as a department chair and teaching online and summer school courses, according to the complaint.

The school division initially offered her $58,108 for her new position. Barnett negotiated and the district raised its offer to $60,851.90, a figure that Jim Bradshaw, who was assistant director of human resources and is now director, said was “as high as we can go,” according to the complaint. In addition, the division denied Barnett’s request to continue teaching virtual classes, which would have yielded additional pay.

Barnett accepted the offer.

Also in 2018, the division promoted Burcham to supervisor of physical education. Though Barnett’s position “required her to perform a more demanding role” and “required a mastery of much more sophisticated technical knowledge than the position of Supervisor of Physical Education,” the division made an initial offer to Burcham of $62,601.84 and allowed him to continue to receive an additional $3,900 coaching stipend, according to the complaint. Burcham’s contract is also 20 days shorter than Barnett’s.

This created a “significant pay disparity,” the lawsuit states.

Barnett met with Bradshaw in April 2019 to discuss the matter. She told him “in no uncertain terms that this pay disparity was inequitable,” according to the complaint.

Bradshaw informed Barnett two days after their meeting that the school division would not adjust her salary.

The division’s position has been that “differences in experience for educational, extracurricular, and after school activities” are considered when making salary decision, according to the complaint.

But the lawsuit argues that the coworkers’ educational background is “nearly equivalent,” and that Barnett has more teaching experience, having taught summer school, homebound and Saturday classes, served as department chair, created and taught online curriculum and coached and sponsored extracurricular activities.

In addition, while Barnett and Burcham work in different subject areas, the lawsuit includes a list of 79 identical job-related responsibilities to prove that the two are “similarly situated” colleagues.

Barnett filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in January. That was dismissed, which Strelka said is a common occurrence.

Strelka said Thursday that the lawsuit is about the school system, not about Burcham or other male employees. Barnett is friends with Burcham, which is how she first discovered the pay disparity, Strelka said.

“All the blame lies at the feet of Roanoke County Public Schools,” he said.

Barnett and Strelka attended Glenvar High School together, so Strelka said he knows the county is “beyond lucky” to employ Barnett.

“It just boils my blood,” he said.

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K-12 Education Reporter

Claire Mitzel covers K-12 education for The Roanoke Times. Contact her at (540) 981-3334 or claire.mitzel@roanoke.com. Follow her on Twitter: @c_mitzel.

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