Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Choir instructor loses case to district

2/08 tahoe mt. news:

By Kathryn Reed

No one denies John Houghton did the work. But the Douglas County School District still won't pay.
Houghton is the music and choir instructor for the Lake schools in the DCSD. As such, he is entitled to stipends for work that goes above and beyond the normal daily classroom instruction.
With his duties expanding last school year, he was unaware he should have received the nearly $2,000 choral stipend from Kingsbury Middle School. Principal Dan Wold, who is in charge of dispensing the money, didn't think about it either.
It wasn't until August 2007, just before the start of this school year, that the oversight was brought to light. Then it was too late. The stipend had been paid to two teachers who put on a talent show.
Houghton pleaded his case in the allocated three minutes before the school board last fall. He took the district to small claims court in Minden on Jan. 15. He lost.
The acting judge who heard the case, Mike Rowe, works for Rowe & Hales LLP. This law firm once worked for DCSD and lists the district as clients on its website. Rowe dismissed the case with prejudice, which means Houghton has no further recourse.
In court, Houghton took a friend's advice to let Rowe preside over the case after Rowe disclosed his affiliation with the school district.
"That judge should have recused himself from hearing the case. It reeks of prejudice," said Susan Lacey, president of the teachers' union. "That whole thing isn't right. Often with the district it's not about doing the right thing, it's about winning."
Superintendent Carol Lark said, "I don't discuss personnel issues." Assistant Superintendent Rich Alexander, who represented the district in court, did not return phone calls. Wold deferred comments to Alexander and the district office.
"Everyone admitted I did the job. They said 'we're sorry we didn't pay you, but we'll take care of you this year, ' " Houghton told the Tahoe Mountain News.
What confounds Houghton is why the district didn't rectify an honest mistake. He doesn't believe the original incident was malicious or intentional.
Houghton said months ago, Wold offered him a fraction of the stipend.
"They came to me with a settlement, with a compromise, but it was a lot less than what I was supposed to get," Houghton said. "In my eyes, whatever is negotiated in the contract, that's what we have to be paid. I told Dan I can't take more or less than what's in the contract. The fact that they offered me less admits they owe me money."
A Jan. 16 email Houghton wrote to Alexander and copied to Lark, Wold, union President Susan Lacey and Whittell Principal Sue Shannon says in part, "If the 'judge' had ruled in my favor, I would have been given a check. Was it really impossible for someone along the way to actually solve this problem? I would guess that if you added up all the valuable time Rich, Dan and I spent preparing, it would come close to equaling the stipend. Not sure if Rich had to discuss this with lawyers, but if he did surely the District gained nothing financially. Is it a moral victory to win in court and not pay a teacher what everyone acknowledges he did?"

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