Teachers deny sickout | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Teachers deny sickout

Sheila Gardner

MINDEN – Whittell High School teachers, facing suspension without pay, have denied during hearings last week that they orchestrated their absences Oct. 30, 2003.

Questioned by Randy Cahill of the Nevada State Education Association, the teachers refuted claims they were part of a “concerted effort” or participated in meetings to organize the absences.

Eleven of the school’s 17 teachers were absent on a day in which all classes were to be observed for the district’s “Data in a Day” program, a day when administrators from inside and outside the district came to observe and evaluate teachers.

What the teachers say was coincidence, school officials believe was an organized effort to undermine first-year Principal Janie Gray on a high-profile day.

Some veteran teachers have said morale is at an all-time low under Gray’s administration.

The school district presented its side in December before Department of Education hearing officer Wayne S. Chimarusti, a Carson City lawyer.

The teachers’ presentation began Wednesday and is expected to conclude today. Hearings are being held at the school district office in Minden.

Teacher John Houghton testified Thursday that he falsified his absence Oct. 30, 2003, but was not part of an organized protest.

Houghton, who teaches band and chorus at Whittell and Kingsbury Middle schools and is a 16-year district veteran, apologized.

“I need to apologize to everybody for doing something I shouldn’t have done,” Houghton said.

He said he had been on jury duty for 2 1Ú2 weeks and was exhausted and demoralized by the outcome.

“I had one day to come back before a three-day weekend and mentally and emotionally, I was not ready to teach students,” Houghton said.

He said he called from his home and said he would be absent because one of his children was ill. He admitted Thursday that his children were with their mother and were not sick.

Houghton said he had no idea the other teachers were going to be absent the same day. He said he lied during his deposition about his absence because he was afraid of losing his job.

“I was scared if I told the truth I would be fired. I know under the Nevada Revised Statute you can be fired for dishonesty and I feared for my job,” Houghton said.

Following his testimony, Houghton crossed the hearing room and shook hands with Superintendent John Soderman and Rich Alexander, assistant superintendent of human resources.

“It feels good to get that off my chest,” he said.

The district is recommending that six of the seven teachers be suspended without pay for three weeks and the seventh be suspended without pay for two weeks.

Teacher Steve Vaughn, who’s been at Whittell for eight years, said he was absent because of a flare-up of chronic back pain.

He said he was called at home that day by Alexander, the first time in 24 years as a teacher he’d ever been questioned about an absence.

He said he used a sick day because he hoped his back pain would subside so he could take a weekend trip with his wife to celebrate her birthday. But he said the back pain was too severe and they stayed home.

Vaughn testified that he has 196 unused sick days and considers the benefit a privilege. He also denied being absent to avoid the “Data in a Day” evaluation.

“I didn’t consider it particularly important,” he said. “Every day’s an important day for me to be at school. I didn’t consider it one way or another.”

Jasmine Gouveia, who has transferred to Douglas High School, served as the teachers’ association representative at Whittell. She also is vice president of the Douglas County Professional Education Association.

Gouveia said on Oct. 1, 2003, she and Vaughn presented Gray with a list of concerns from teachers about the principal’s management style.

She said the teachers felt Gray didn’t communicate well, listen to concerns or take suggestions from staff.

“The meeting lasted abut five minutes,” Gouveia said. “Ms. Gray had no response when she tossed the list to one side.”

Gouveia said the next day, Soderman was at the school with the list and said he would address it with Gray.

“The faculty was satisfied,” Gouveia said. “Mr. Soderman has shown in the past he takes our concerns seriously.”

Gouveia, who was absent Oct. 30, said she was suffering from an aggravated back injury incurred while she was disposing of 100 pounds of plastic and aluminum for the school’s recycling program.

Like the other teachers, she denied being part of an organized effort or having prior knowledge that so many teachers would be out.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Chimarusti has 30 days to forward his findings to the Douglas County school board that ultimately decides if the suspension would be upheld.

In addition to Houghton, Vaughn and Gouveia, the other teachers facing suspension are Larry Reilly, Jeremy Smith, James Hynes and counselor Karen Boulet.

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