Mayor's influence figures in City Colleges discrimination case

  • By Peter Sachs
  • Staff Writer
  • June 24, 2009 @ 7:00 AM

A former City Colleges of Chicago administrator says in court documents that mayoral pressure contributed to her eventual firing.

Ramona Shaw worked in the district’s human resources department from 1999 until she was fired at the end of 2006. She subsequently filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against the City Colleges.

The suit alleges Chancellor Wayne Watson was pressured by the mayor’s office to hire a Hispanic for the top human resources post. Shaw is black, while the woman hired for the position, Xiomara Cortes Metcalfe, identifies as Hispanic or Afro-Cuban, according to court documents.

The details come from lengthy excerpts of deposition transcripts that were added to the court file in the case late Monday as part of a move by the City Colleges to have some of the charges against the district dismissed.

The hundreds of pages of transcripts omit some large portions of the depositions, several of which lasted for three hours or longer.

They provide sometimes contradictory accounts of Shaw’s performance as an employee: alternately a strong leader, yet lacking “gravitas,” as one former vice chancellor said, to lead the department.

And while several people said Shaw became increasingly difficult to work with leading up to her firing, she also raised concerns about differences in pay between black and Hispanic employees.

Shaw, in her deposition, recalled a conversation with Watson in early 2004 in which he said he would hire Shaw if it were up to him. But she recalled him saying, “And if you ever ask me about this under oath, I will deny it.”

Watson, in court records, denied ever saying such a thing. But he acknowledged in his deposition that he met quarterly with Mayor Richard M. Daley throughout his time as chancellor.

Watson has declined to comment on the lawsuit, as have the City Colleges. 

Shaw says that even almost three years later, the gravity of what Watson said may have been one of the reasons she was fired.

“I think he became uncomfortable with the fact that I knew it, that he had made the statement to me, that Xiomara and I were having some differences, and I think it put him in kind of a compromising position,” Shaw said in her deposition.

But while the transcripts provide new insights that attempt to link allegations of mayoral influence to Shaw’s firing, they also paint Shaw as an employee who became increasingly difficult to work with.

After Shaw was passed over for the permanent position running human resources in early 2004, another administrator said Shaw soon became disrespectful of Metcalfe.

The depositions indicate that Watson, Metcalfe and some other officials discussed firing Shaw several times in November 2006.

“She was insubordinate. She was being divisive. She was – being unprofessional,” Watson said in his deposition.

But Fern Trevino, Shaw's attorney, says suggestions that her client was disrespectful toward superiors are way off base.

“I would say it’s really stretching it quite a bit,” Trevino says. “Ms. Shaw had very fine performance reviews and if she were a bad employee, I think that would have been noted much earlier.”

A few weeks before she was fired, Shaw sent a letter to Metcalfe expressing concern over pay differences among some employees in human resources.

In the letter, Shaw says a newly hired Hispanic man who had only 6 months of relevant experience was making $2,200 more per year than an employee in a similar role who had 18 months of experience. And the new hire was making $1,000 more per year than a coordinator with 10 years of experience.

“Please assist me in explaining this move to staff so that they can reconcile what they perceive as a blatant insult to their hard work and intellect,” Shaw wrote.

Daily News Staff Writer Peter Sachs covers higher education. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 18, or peter [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.