WEST BRANCH — A decision on whether to discipline six teachers in the West Branch-Rose City school district for writing letters of support for former teacher Neal Erickson won’t come until next month.
WB-RC board President Jack Money said at a special board meeting July 29 that because of the scope of the decision, the board needed some time to think it over before making a decision.
“It is a huge decision, whichever road we go down,” Money told those in attendance. “Don’t underestimate how huge it is.”
The board has been left to decide whether to discipline or dismiss six teachers who wrote letters of support for Erickson, who pleaded guilty to first degree criminal sexual conduct with a student. Several members of the community attended the meeting, which was held in the Ogemaw Heights High School auditorium. A steady stream of people approached the podium to address the board during a two hour and 20 minute period of public comment at the beginning of the meeting.
Most called for the firing of the teachers, and the resignation of board member Mike Eagan, who sat with Erickson’s family at the sentencing earlier this month.
At one point during the public comment, the board members were asked if they would feel comfortable having their children or grandchildren in the classrooms with the teachers who wrote letters of support.
Money, Dick Bachelder, Scott Williams and Ron Hughes, as well as Superintendent Dan Cwayna, all said they would not. Pat Beasley and Richard Nelson were absent. Beasley was working, according to Cwayna, and Nelson told the Herald he was on vacation at the time of the meeting.
Eagan said he would be OK with it.
“I do not have any problem at all with my son going into any of those classes,” Eagan said, as he was met with boos from the audience.
Several of those who spoke threatened to remove their children from the district if the teachers were not dismissed. Money said each student comes with approximately $7,000 of state funds, so if 60 students left the district, it would mean a loss of around a half a million dollars.
“There would be deep cuts,” he said.
But Bachelder said if the teachers were fired, that could also mean a big financial loss for the district.
“One of the things that concerns me as a board member is the cost of litigation,” Bachelder said. “The board’s going to have to make some decisions with regard to the teachers and we also have to know the loss of students.”
“I suspect if the teachers are terminated, they are going to sue us,” he continued. “That’s money that we don’t have.”
Once the public comment portion of the meeting was completed, the board went into closed session in order to review a letter from its attorney and come up with a list of options available for the board. After approximately two and a half hours in closed session, the board reconvened to present the options to the community members. Cwayna read a prepared statement from the board.
“Should the district pursue disciplinary action of the six teachers who wrote the letters pertaining to Mr. Erickson, the board must additionally ask itself if the teachers’ actions were protected by the first amendment,” Cwayna read. “There’s often a shade of gray involved, and such is the case here. It is difficult to determine what a court might decide in this matter.”
Cwayna said a balancing test must be weighed by the court to decide if a person’s speech is protected, or whether the disruption of the school outweighs the teachers’ rights.
“This balancing test is imprecise, and the fact that judges often do not agree after applying the balancing test explains why it is impossible to guarantee whether this speech will be found to be protected or unprotected by the first amendment,” he said.
He said the board needs to weigh several things in its decision.
“We need to be concerned with the feelings of the entire Janczewski family,” Cwayna said. Lori and John Janczewski are the parents of the victim, and have spoken out publicly against the teachers and Eagan.
“We must also remember we live in the United States, where people have the right to express their opinions, even if we disagree,” Cwayna added. “In addition, we need to consider the financial cost to the district of this decision.”
He said the community needs to be aware of the financial effects a decision will have on the school district.
“Is the community willing to eliminate programs, perhaps eliminate busing, to perhaps privatize some of our services, or to make any other substantial cuts needed to fund a legal course of action?” Cwayna asked. “Should the district pursue the termination of these six teachers, this course of action comes with risks and financial responsibilities for which the district must find the necessary funds. Should tenure charges be filed against these teachers, the bottom line is this: The very best case scenario is the additional cost of approximately a half a million dollars to the school district.”
Cwayna said the next consideration would be whether the district would invite wrongful discharge lawsuits and civil suits from the teachers involved.
“This litigation, should the judgments go against the district, could potentially run well over a million dollars and bring the district to its financial knees,” Cwayna said.
As the meeting came to a close, Cathy Zimmerman again asked Eagan if he would consider resigning.
“Mike, have you changed your mind?” she asked. “You could take this community to a giant step of healing if you would just walk away. It would be a huge step for them and us. Let us heal. Let us take one step toward healing.”
Eagan said he was not going to resign.
“Cathy, the community elected me, and there’s a process to remove me,” he responded. “I am not going to resign from this meeting tonight, Cathy.”
The Herald will continue to report on this issue as it continues, and will provide full coverage of the Aug. 19 WB-RC school board meeting both online at www.ogemawherald.com, and in print.