Judge reinstates Wayne-Westland superintendent placed on leave

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
Shelley Holt had been on leave since board vote during special meeting last month.

A judge reinstated a Wayne-Westland Community Schools superintendent who sued the district and school board, alleging she was placed on leave amid unfounded accusations of mismanagement.

Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Craig Strong issued a temporary restraining order Tuesday blocking further action against Shelley Holt and ordered officials to turn over all documents from third parties complaining about her conduct.

Holt also said in her lawsuit that she was placed on leave in retaliation for working to address compliance and diversity issues.

Strong scheduled a July 30 hearing on a permanent injunction in the case, said her lawyer, Anthony Adams.

District officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the order Tuesday.

A $2 million lawsuit filed Monday in Wayne County Circuit Court claims Holt, who is African American and starting her third year leading the district of nearly 12,000 students, was discriminated against and not given a chance to defend herself.

“We believe there is a high level of disproportionate treatment by the district,” Adams said.

According to the suit, a retiring athletics director in the district submitted a lengthy letter to the board last month in which he claimed “Dr. Holt’s leadership has created division which has resulted in a fear-based culture.” The director’s letter said the superintendent had failed to attend several events at Wayne Memorial High School, mistreated or targeted some district staffers, and 20 administrators had left during her tenure.

Days later, a June 20 special board meeting was scheduled to determine whether an investigation into her conduct be started, the court filing said. However, board president David Cox had not discussed the complaints against Holt as board policy requires and “knew … some of the allegations contained within it were patently false yet took no action to inform the public,” the document stated. "The substance of the complaints raised … were nothing more than (the athletics director’s) opinion about what he thought about her management style.”

The superintendent had also requested the special board meeting be held in closed session as state law allows when possible discipline is considered, but it was ignored, according to the lawsuit.

During the session, the board approved a resolution to place Holt on paid administrative leave pending the completion of a probe into her actions — a move “completely different from how an investigation was handled against a former white male superintendent of the district,” the filing stated.

Holt’s lawsuit alleges the board retaliated against her for “addressing serious compliance issues within (the district) relating to audits associated with the handling of financial transactions, special education compliance issues, and diversifying the racial composition of the administration staff per the strategic plan … which she was expected to implement.”

Reached Monday night, Cox referred questions to the district’s communications director, who confirmed officials were reviewing the suit but would not comment further.

The board had appointed an interim superintendent. A law firm also was investigating the claims against Holt.

In a statement posted on the district website after the board vote, Cox said the allegations “contend, in pertinent part, that a culture of fear, favoritism, and intimidation has been perpetuated by the Superintendent, resulting in adverse impacts on staff and, ultimately, our school community.”

He added that the board’s action “is not disciplinary, nor does it represent any accusation of wrongdoing. It is a necessary procedural process required to determine the validity or lack of validity of these allegations. Completing this process fairly, quickly and professionally with respect to all parties involved will be essential to the resolution of this issue and the return of focus to our central mission — the education of our students.”

Holt's lawsuit asked a judge to award her damages for emotional distress.

“Dr. Holt is very concerned about the students in the district,” Adams said. “She was going into the third year of her superintendency and had made significant progress in a lot of different areas around curriculum and teaching. A lot of those things are left up in the air, as far as she’s concerned.”