Former deputy director of state agency claims retaliation, civil rights violations

By: - November 14, 2022 2:04 pm

The Iowa Department of Education oversees K-12 schooling in Iowa. (Classroom photo by Getty Images; logo courtesy of the Iowa Department of Education)

The Iowa Department of Education’s former deputy director says she resigned after facing retaliation for complaining to the governor’s staff about civil rights violations within the agency.

State records indicate that before she resigned in February, Amy Williamson had worked for the Iowa Department of Education since May 2007, first as a data analyst for special education, then as an administrative consultant and as a bureau chief for school improvement.

In October 2020, she was promoted to deputy director of the agency, with Director Ann Lebo serving as her immediate supervisor. Williamson remained in that position until she resigned in February 2022.

According to Williamson’s testimony at a recent hearing on her claim for unemployment benefits, she began having concerns with some of the department’s human resources policies in early 2021.

She testified that she also was concerned with Lebo’s response when she questioned those policies, feeling that her concerns weren’t taken seriously.

Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo. (Photo courtesy of the office of Gov. Kim Reynolds)

Williamson testified that after talking to Lebo about what she felt were civil rights violations occurring within the department, she waited six weeks for the director to take some action. According to Williamson, Lebo didn’t remedy the civil rights violations, and instead “doubled down” on a department employee who was affected, issuing what Williamson felt was a penalty for the way the worker had dealt with an illness.

Williamson testified that because she felt her concerns weren’t taken seriously by Lebo, she relayed her concerns to the governor’s office on Jan. 20, 2022.

Less than two weeks later, she testified, she was called into a meeting with Lebo and instructed to change some sort of “employee review” to show that the worker had not met certain mandatory deadlines. Williamson protested, arguing the deadlines had been met.

According to Williamson’s testimony at the hearing, Lebo then said she was not pleased with Williamson for talking to the governor’s office. Williamson testified she told Lebo she had only told the governor’s staff the truth, as was her obligation as a manager in state government.

Lebo, Williamson testified, then said that the department was reorganizing and that she had “a plan to deal with this.” Williamson would no longer be managing K-12 education and the department would hire someone new for that task. In addition, Williamson’s supervisory duties were being reduced from overseeing 138 people to supervising three administrative consultants and a secretary.

Two days later, Williamson testified, she experienced gastrointestinal bleeding and wound up being treated at an urgent care clinic. After a series of examinations, Williamson was diagnosed with an acute stress reaction and her doctor took her off work for six weeks.

After completing her Family Medical Leave Act paperwork, Williamson saw a job posting for an administrator at the department, listing almost identical duties to her position, including all of the responsibilities that had just been assigned to her by Lebo.

While Williamson was still on FMLA, she testified, her doctor advised her not to return to work because her illness was a direct result of work-related anxiety and stress.

On Feb. 24, Williamson sent a letter of resignation to Lebo and the agency’s lawyers, stating that after seeing her job duties had been posted as part of a new position, she had no faith that she would have a job once her FMLA leave ended.

Williamson then applied for and was denied unemployment benefits. She appealed that decision, which led to a July hearing before Administrative Law Judge Emily Drenkow Carr. The Department of Education opted not to participate in the hearing.

Noting that Williamson’s testimony in the case was “unrefuted,” Carr stated in a recently published ruling in the case that there is no evidence of “any deficiency” in Williamson’s job performance.

Williamson, Carr found, “believed her reduction in duties to be a punishment for reporting her civil rights concerns to the governor’s office. Under the circumstances faced by (Williamson), a reasonable person would feel compelled to resign.”

Given those facts, Carr ruled, Williamson’s resignation was “for a good-cause reason attributable to the employer,” and she was entitled to collect unemployment benefits.

A spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Education said Monday she had no comment to make at that time but planned to have a response on Tuesday.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.

MORE FROM AUTHOR