Official to decide outcome of alleged sickout at Whittell |

Official to decide outcome of alleged sickout at Whittell

Sheila Gardner

MINDEN – After five days of public hearings, dozens of legal depositions, and thousands of pages of documents, the question of whether teachers at Whittell High School engaged in an illegal sickout 18 months ago is in the hands of a Department of Education hearing officer.

Six teachers and a school counselor asked for the public hearing after they were suspended for up to three weeks without pay by the school district following an investigation of the Oct. 30, 2003, absence of 10 of the school’s 17 teachers.

Four of the absences were pre-approved and those teachers were not disciplined.

Teachers gave their side during hearings last week at the district office in Minden before Carson City lawyer Wayne S. Chimarusti, the hearing officer. School and district administrators testified in December.

Teachers claimed the mass absence was coincidence, but the district said it was an attempt to embarrass Principal Janie Gray, who was in her first year at the Zephyr Cove high school.

Because both sides would not agree the arbitration was binding, Chimarusti said he will present written findings to the Douglas County school board, which will decide whether the suspensions issued in February 2004 are upheld.

The teachers testified last week that a variety of medical problems kept them home Oct. 30, 2003, and that they acted independently.

They denied allegations of secret teachers’ meetings or a conspiracy to undermine Gray, whom they blamed for low morale at the high school.

But school officials, citing district data, said the absences pointed to a conspiracy.

The teachers called in sick on the same day the district had planned Data In a Day, when visitors observed classroom teachers.

School board lawyer Mike Nivinskus offered district statistics that out of the seven teachers who called in with last-minute absences that day, six were from Whittell – 86 percent of the absences in the district.

According to district statistics, the school averaged one absence per day from 2001 through the 2004 school year.

Randy Cahill of the Nevada State Education Association said the district based its case on rumor and innuendo and failed to provide a burden of proof of dishonesty or a concerted effort to organize a sickout.

“Fifteen days suspension means thousands of dollars in lost income and lost retirement benefits,” Cahill said. “But more important is the stigmatizing nature of these findings that these people engaged in conduct they did not engage in.”

“The problem with this is these people got caught,” said school lawyer Bob Cox. “They can’t thumb their nose at the district. They can’t thumb their nose at Mrs. Gray. There was a legitimate way to handle this. They were told that in September (2003) and they chose not to do it.”

The district recommended that teachers Jasmine Gouveia, Larry Reilly, Jeremy Smith, James Hynes, Steve Vaughn and John Houghton be suspended for three weeks without pay, and counselor Karen Boulet be suspended for two weeks without pay.

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