Durham County

Celebrated drama teacher sues Durham Public Schools

Wendell Tabb, a teacher at Hillside High School in Durham, was honored at the 2017 Tony Awards.
Wendell Tabb, a teacher at Hillside High School in Durham, was honored at the 2017 Tony Awards. The Durham Voice

Celebrated Hillside High School drama teacher Wendell Tabb has sued the Durham Public Schools alleging racial discrimination around staffing in the school’s drama department and unfair compensation for the extra duties he performs.

Tabb, who recently received an honorable mention for a Tony Award, alleges in the lawsuit that DPS has historically refused to provide Hillside, a predominantly black high school, with the same level of staffing for its drama program as it does predominantly white high schools such as Jordan, Riverside and Durham School of the Arts, which have comparable drama programs.

As a result, the lawsuit alleges Tabb has been forced to perform the “work of two or three teachers” to maintain the Hillside drama program, while the district’s predominantly white high schools have had “two of more teachers assigned to do the same work.”

More specifically, Tabb contends he has performed the work of theater director, which involves directing students in productions, and theater technical director, which includes overseeing lighting, sound, sets and other technical duties.

In addition, Tabb charges that for the past 30 years he has worked long hours for which he was not compensated keeping the theater open for events unrelated to the theater program such as “musical performances involving students from other schools, graduation ceremonies, administrative meetings and other such programs.

“I can’t imagine a finer teacher,” said Tabb’s attorney Stewart W. Fisher in an interview Wednesday during which he noted that Tabb has received more than a 100 awards and citations for his work at Hillside. “He really has not been treated fairly.”

Since at least 2004, the lawsuit states, Tabb has asked DPS leaders to either pay him for the the extra duties he performs or to hire someone to assist him in running the drama department.

A nearly decade-old grudge?

Filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina in Greensboro on Wednesday, Aug. 9, the lawsuit also claims that DPS officials’ refusal to properly compensate Tabb is linked to a lawsuit he filed against the school district in 2005 in which he charged that a special needs therapist taped his then 10-year-old child’s mouth shut during class.

DPS settled the lawsuit in 2009 for $75,000 to the benefit of the son, plus $100 for Tabb and his wife.

Fisher contends district officials, many of whom have remained in leadership positions at DPS over the years, continue to deny Tabb proper compensation due to the earlier lawsuit, which if true, is a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

“It’s not the kind of thing people forget,” Fisher said of the 2005 lawsuit. “Mr. [Wendell] Tabb certainly believes there’s been lingering resentment against him since then.”

The lawsuit lists Superintendent Bert L’Homme, who was a deputy superintendent under then-superintendent Ann Denlinger at the time the lawsuit was filed and Deputy Superintendent Hugh Osteen and Assistant Superintendent for Personnel Thomas Crabtree as district leaders who were “embarrassed by and unhappy” with Tabb’s advocacy for his disabled son.

L’Homme is scheduled to step down at the end of September and both Osteen and Crabtree are out on long-term medical leave. It is unclear whether either will return to work.

Tabb is seeking compensation in an amount exceeding $10,000 in each of the three claims. He also seeks lost wages and additional compensation to retirement and benefit plans.

He earlier filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and was granted the right to sue in May.

The quest for better extra-duty pay

In recent years, Tabb has led the charge for better extra-duty pay for teachers in the performing arts whom, he contends, are not fairly compensated for the extra work they take on.

Until last year, Tabb, who has more than 30 years of experience, only earned $2,170 a year for extra duties while a football coach with similar experience was paid more than $8,300 a year in supplemental extra-duty pay.

DPS has revised its extra-duty pay scale for extracurricular work in the performing arts, so Tabb and other teachers who take on extra duties now receive slightly better supplemental pay for their work.

Still, the lawsuit contends DPS has not gone far enough to address the inequities which are the basis for Tabb’s complaint.

“This new set of criteria increased Plaintiff’s [Tabb’s] pay as a Theatre Director (and benefited all the Performing Arts Teachers), but still did not address either the historical deficits in his pay or the fact that Plaintiff has performed the jobs of a Technical Theatre Director and has run the Hillside Theatre for non-theatre events without compensation, while additional and/or pay has been provided at the predominantly white schools with comparable Theatre programs,” the lawsuit states.

Meanwhile, DPS said it could not comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, but noted its effort to increase extra-duty pay for teachers.

“Durham Public Schools has increased extra duty pay for teachers in a way that we believe is fair within the resources available to us,” DPS spokesman Chip Sudderth said in a statement. “We continue to advocate for increased compensation to teachers who take on additional responsibilities in support of our students and schools.”

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645