School board appeals arbitrator’s decision in favor of teacher who criticized budget cuts

IOWA — The Charles City School Board decided to appealan arbitrator’s decision that said administrators were wrong whenthey reprimanded a teacher for insubordination after he announceda school-proposed staff reduction at a music concert.

Larry Michehl, a music teacher at Charles City High School,was sent a letter of reprimand by school Superintendent MartyLucas a week after he announced to an estimated 500 audience membersat a school concert that the school was making recommendationsto cut back the music department staff.

In October, Michehl and school board members met with arbitratorMichael Gordon, who ruled in favor of the teacher in December,and told administrators they should remove the letter of reprimandfrom his personnel file.

"The merits of the dispute are not difficult," Gordonsaid. "The May 9 letter is more than unfair, unjust and inaccurate,it is an example of arrogance that reaches the realm of outrageous."

He added, "It is designed to quash an effective free exchangeof reasoned ideas and to chill good faith comments by teachersabout matters within their expertise and of value to the public."

The school board, which was given 30 days to consider the decision,decided in January to appeal Gordon’s decision in state court.

School officials said they were appealing the decision to findout whether they are allowed under the terms of the employee contractto discipline school employees without arbitration. Michehl saidschool board members claimed at their last board meeting thatthis case could determine school employees’ right to appeal disciplinaryactions to an arbitrator, a process that costs a lot of money.

"Basically, it’s a matter of contract interpretation,"said Judy O’Donohoe, the school district’s attorney. "Thedistrict’s opinion is that they have not agreed to arbitrate mattersinvolving employee discipline or discharge."

According to Michehl, after the school board’s decision toappeal was finalized, Lucas met with him and told him he wouldremove the letter of reprimand from his file. Michehl said theletter was removed on Feb. 12. The following day, the school boardvoted to continue with the appeal.

Michehl, who said he is unsure of the reasons behind Lucas’actions, believes it resulted from complaints Lucas received fromcommunity members who criticized the board for its reprimand.

"I think it was a public relations ploy more than anythingelse," Michehl said. "He’s been catching a lot of heatlocally in our local papers, and even statewide there’ve beenletters to the editor addressing this issue."

O’Donohoe, however, said Lucas has the right under districtpolicy to decide how long a letter of reprimand should be in ateacher’s file.

"He has the right to pull the reprimand for anybody anytimehe determines that it’s been in there long enough," O’Donohoesaid.

She added that she does not know if the letter is currentlyin Michehl’s file.

Before calling on outside assistance, Michehl was requiredby the school grievance procedures to meet with Lucas, schooladministrators and the school board attorney. At that meeting,Michehl learned that a letter of reprimand would be placed inhis file and was told that future incidents could lead to hisdismissal.

According to Michehl, he made the announcement because of the"irony" of the issue. Michehl said it was ironic thatthe school wanted to reduce the staff of the music departmentafter they won a Grammy Signature School award recognizing their"outstanding music program."

"It was information the public needed to have," Michehlsaid. "It was not going to be forthcoming from another source."

In the past, many student newspaper advisers have been reprimandedfor speaking out against censorship of the publications they advise.This case will affect the ability of teachers, including advisers,in the district to seek an arbitrator’s ruling on disciplinarydecisions they believe are unfair.

A court date has not yet been set.