Costs mount in case of teacher suspended in 2009 but still getting paid

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WILSON, NY - The Wilson Central School District has been grappling with an issue for more than four years, which has cost the district a huge amount of money, with no apparent end in sight.

"This is really about a system which I submit is broken and needs to be fixed," said Karl Kristoff, the attorney for the school district.

In 2009, Wilson Central suspended a teacher, and began termination proceedings.

Neither Kristoff nor Superintendent of Schools Michael Wendt would identify the employee by name, or remark on the nature of their alleged conduct.

"The statute requires that the identity of the individual involved as well as the nature of the conduct, not be made public until such time as there is a decision," Kristoff told WGRZ-TV.

We have confirmed though sources, however, that the parents of a student expressed concerns about the teacher contacting their daughter outside of school, and buying her gifts. It made them uncomfortable

The district warned the teacher to cease. When he did not, he was suspended, and the district moved to fire him.

Section 30-20 A of the New York state education law, covering disciplinary procedures and penalties, allows for the suspension of a teacher, "pending a hearing on the charges and a final determination thereof."

However, during that time, it also allows the employee, as long as they have not been convicted of a crime involving drugs or abuse of a child, to continue to be paid.

As none of the accusations involved any of that kind of conduct, the teacher was entitled (while the case is pending) to be paid and is still being paid, according to Kristoff.

The law also specifies that a hearing officer, picked by the state, "will render a written decision, within 30 days of any final hearing."

It's a system designed to have a decision made -generally-within several months to a year.

That this case has dragged on for more than four years can be attributed to not only its complexity according to Kristoff, but also two significant issues that affected the hearing officer.

"First of all the state for a significant period of time both before and during the hearing, I guess due to a lack of funds was not paying the hearing officers and then, this particular hearing officer unfortunately became gravely ill and was literally out of action for a significant period of time," said Kristoff.

In a letter written last summer to those involved in cases he was selected to arbitrate, the hearing officer provided "an update regarding my current medical condition" - a medical condition he does not name, but which he reveals is one of "extreme exhaustion", and which requires that he get "just shy of 14 hours of sleep" daily.

He goes on to say: "my battery wears down very quickly, particularly if 1.) I am doing physical work like washing a car… or 2.) if I am performing intellectual work such as the writing of an opinion or an award.

In that letter of August 2013, the hearing officer also confirms that at that time, he still had a backlog of some 13 cases…and that while he had previously indicated a hope of getting them all finished by the end of 2013, he concluded: "I am now convinced that even that is not possible".

"I know this is getting 'old', he wrote, "I humbly apologize for the delays."

It is getting more than old for the Wilson central school district.

It is getting rather expensive

Since his suspension, the school district has continued to pay the teacher, who has been paid about $225,000 and has been getting annual raises, even though he hasn't taught a day there since 2009

In addition to the suspended teacher's salary, health care, and other benefits, the district has had to pay those of the teacher that had to brought in to replace him while the suspension lingers.

Therefore, that is two salaries, on top of more than four years worth of legal fees.

Plus the up to $1,800 per day plus travel expenses, that taxpayers have had to pay the hearing officer, for the days he actually did work on the case.

All told, the cost of the case is approaching one million dollars for the school district, with no apparent end in sight.

"That's ridiculous!" said NYS Senator George Maziarz (R-62nd District), to whom the district reached out for help in September.

At that time, Wendt confirmed the district's costs for the case had already exceeded $750,000. A review of the minutes of school board meetings held since then indicates they have continued to climb.

Each month, there is noted a recommendation by Wendt, and subsequently approved by the school board: to continue the non-disciplinary suspension with pay of a particular employee."

"It's a total waste of money," said Maziarz, who took the case directly to NYS Education Commissioner John King.

"I told him this was crazy and I sent him all the information that the school district supplied me and again, that was late last year, and he told me he would get back to me ...which he did," said Maziarz.

However, the answer Maziarz received was not one he wanted to hear. The law would not permit the hearing officer to be replaced. "He told me they can't switch up arbitrators…that they could see what they could do, obviously he hasn't done anything thus far. It's unacceptable," Maziarz said.

"This is a hearing officer that is appointed under procedures that are in a statute essentially forced on us, by the state," Kristoff said.

Kristoff also noted that by law, the district can't contact the hearing officer directly at this stage of the case. It did, however, contact the State Education department offering the hearing officer a stenographer or secretary, at district expense, in order to help the hearing officer toward making a decision.

The hearing officer, when contacted by WGRZ-TV, said he had been asked by the state not to comment on the case. He did, however, confirm his illness and added that as he began to recover, he was involved in a serious car accident, which resulted in a two-week hospitalization in October.

2 On Your Side has also confirmed that the same hearing officer was involved in another long delayed case, also four years in length, involving an administrator in the Salamanca School District.

That case, which finally resulted in a decision last week to re-instate the suspended employee, also cost that district approximately 1 million dollars.

According to Kristoff, examples like these are another reason school districts are growing increasingly hesitant to try and remove teachers, even if they feel there is just cause for doing so..

"I can't believe the state education department allowed this to go on as long as they have ...without going back to the legislature and asking us to change this law, because we're certainly looking at doing the changes now," said Maziarz.

Because of these cases, Maziarz will submit a bill in this legislative session intended to expedite the procedures involved in hearing a case.

"What would change is having definitive time frames for a decision, and the ability, if an arbitrator or a hearing officer becomes ill and unable to perform their duties that you're able to have some mechanism to switch out," Maziarz said.

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