Former principal's book recounts gender discrimination battle

COOK -- Judy Pearson was sleeping with the St. Louis County schools superintendent -- of course she was. Why else would she be considered as a candidate for the Cook School principal position in 1986?...

COOK -- Judy Pearson was sleeping with the St. Louis County schools superintendent -- of course she was. Why else would she be considered as a candidate for the Cook School principal position in 1986?

That was the rumor that sparked a lengthy gender discrimination lawsuit against the school district and some members of the Cook community.

Pearson, a gravel-voiced woman who lives on Lake Vermilion and loves to fish and shoot clay pigeons with her husband, recently wrote a book about her experiences with gender discrimination in 1986. In it, she also describes what she considers retaliation for raising questions about the district's superintendent hiring process in 1997.

Much has changed for women wanting to work as principals and superintendents in the years since she began, Pearson said. Discrimination is "not as blatant," she said. "People are getting more and more educated. But that's driven it underground; people get more sophisticated" about employing retaliation or discrimination.

"Plaintiff Blues" is a blow-by-blow account of Pearson's career. It begins with her 1979 job in Buhl as the first female high school principal on the Iron Range, where the local principals' organization half-heartedly tried to keep her from attending their meetings before warming up to a woman in the job. It ends with her retirement from the St. Louis County schools in 2001 after working as a principal in two of the district's schools, though not in Cook.


In between were decades of rage and sadness, some support, and some dismissal. Pearson filed her first lawsuit against the district in 1987, about a year before Lois Jenson signed on with a landmark class-action lawsuit over sexual harassment at an iron ore mine in Eveleth -- the case that inspired the 2005 film "North Country."

St. Louis County schools Assistant Superintendent Sidney Simonson says Pearson's allegations concerning the school district "are very, very false." He was with the district when Pearson filed her second lawsuit, though not her first.

"She's lashing out at all district personnel," Simonson said. "I sympathize with her, with her circumstances. She was not given opportunities she felt she should have, and she has taken it out on other people."

Yet Pearson said she made the right decisions in fighting discriminatory practices.

"I would do it again, without a doubt," Pearson said, looking back on the experience. "I probably couldn't live with myself if I didn't."

When Joann Knuth first walked into a gathering of Minnesota principals in the mid-1980s, she saw a sea of men and no other women. Knuth is executive director of the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals. Today's more welcoming climate is due in large part to people who mentored and encouraged women to enter school administration, Knuth said. Even now, smaller, rural areas are less accepting of women administrators than Twin Cities-area schools, she said.

"That mentality may still exist in places today," Knuth said. "But in large measure, we have seen excellence from women in administration and continuing numbers of women entering educational administration."

Knuth, who did her student teaching in Duluth, became the first woman to head the association representing 1,111 active principals. Today, about a third of those principals are women.


"Women bring an intuitive, nurturing aspect to the job," Knuth said. "The women I have worked with do not bring a competitive model to their leadership; they go into positions with a sense of cooperation, of collaboration."

Pearson joined the association in 1979 and was one of the first women to do so, Knuth said. She called Pearson one of those "pioneers of women in educational leadership."

A smaller proportion of women hold superintendent jobs in Minnesota schooldistricts.

"It's a traditionally male role," said Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. However, more women than men hold assistant superintendent or equivalent positions in the state.

"One of the challenges they run into is trying to manage a family and manage the time needed to be a superintendent," Kyte said. "You put in so much time, it's hard to be in that traditional 'mom' role."

Kyte also said parents in a few Minnesota communities "are still male-centric; they see themselves as being led by a male." If he knows of a female superintendent interested in applying at such a community, Kyte said, he tries to steer them elsewhere.

"Other women have paved the way for me," said Proctor Schools Superintendent Diane Raushenfels. The district had already had one female superintendent by the time Raushenfels took the position in 2002. She said it didn't seem remarkable to do so, though at least one district teacher was concerned that the district had a female superintendent and high school and middle school principals, she said.

"I have such a different way of operating," Raushenfels said. "I build a climate where risk and change [among district staff] are encouraged, where some of the men at my table are more interested in how to fight the system, how to beat the teachers at their own game."


As she stayed embroiled in her fight with the district, Pearson said she wondered many times why she couldn't just "suck it up and move on."

"I don't have an answer," Pearson said. "I wrestled with it ... but it always really pisses me off when I see something that's unfair."

Today, Pearson is still fielding calls seeking advice about gender discrimination and retaliation. She won't give much advice, except how to access equal employment opportunity commission forms and other information.

But she does tell callers this: Trust your own instincts.

"I always encourage them to do the right thing, because if no one says anything, nothing changes," Pearson said. "But people have to make their own decisions, because they have to live with the consequences."

A number of administrators named in Pearson's book are still with the St. Louis County schools, while the superintendent named in her retaliation lawsuit was abruptly terminated by the St. Louis County School Board in 2004.

And a new administrator is set to begin work at AlBrook School on Tuesday -- her name is Kristi Berlin.

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