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Fired teacher, charged with rape, gets raises

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — A fired Alabama teacher charged criminally with raping a student is still receiving paychecks — collecting nearly $100,000 and getting two raises — even though he hasn't been in the classroom in two years.

Alvin Penez Taylor, who awaits an Aug. 20 trial on the rape charge, is the beneficiary of a legal twist in a 2004 Alabama law that was supposed to reform the state's teacher dismissal process.

A review by The Associated Press found that the law, pushed by the state teachers' union with the backing of Republican Gov. Bob Riley, has allowed
at least two other education
system personnel to continue
to collect paychecks for 11 months and longer after being fired.

One was an agricultural science teacher accused of sexually harassing and inappropriately touching a student.

Another was a cheerleading coach cited for using her high school's gym to run a gymnastics business.

Similar to other states

National school board and teachers' union officials say Alabama's 2004 law, which allows teachers to keep getting paid until an arbitrator upholds the dismissal, is similar to that of most states.

But Taylor is the poster boy for Alabama school administrators calling for another look at the 2004 law.

Because he was charged criminally, his firing could not be reviewed by an arbitrator.

Taylor's attorney argued — and the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals agreed — that it was unfair for teachers to have the arbitration first because they could implicate themselves in the criminal proceedings.

That allowed Taylor, a former teacher and coach in Talladega County, to keep drawing paychecks even though he was fired in March 2005 after being accused of inappropriately touching a 16-year-old student and
engaging in inappropriate sex-ual activity with another student.

The accusations led to sexual abuse and rape charges, with Taylor being acquitted in the abuse case.

While waiting for the rape charge to go to trial, he received the two pay raises.

Talladega County Superintendent Cindy Elsberry said that if the teacher is convicted, he probably won't keep getting paid, but it's not certain. She said there is no precedent on post-conviction appeals under the new arbitration system in Alabama.

"Arbitration is so new in education that we don't know how they're going to act," she said. "There are a lot of unknowns out there."

Change for the better?

Alabama's previous teacher dismissal law stopped paychecks if the state tenure review board upheld a teacher's firing, and it reimbursed teachers with interest if they won on appeal.

Under the new law, which was to speed up the process, the teacher keeps getting paid while the case goes to an arbitrator, and the teacher doesn't have to repay any money if the firing is upheld.

"It gives employees a financial incentive to appeal, it's costly to school boards and we're getting poor results," said Sally Howell, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards.

"It's not cheaper, it's not easier, it's not faster. It's a disaster," she said.

Taylor's attorney, Clarence Dortch of Talladega, declined comment because of the pending criminal case.

Officials with the Alabama Education Association, which supported the new process, say the changes make Alabama a fairer place for instructors and that teachers should get paid while appealing their dismissal.

"Do you send a person to prison before they're convicted?" AEA director Paul Hubbert said. "You don't take people's property or liberty without due process."

The governor, however, is having second thoughts about the law he backed.

Riley communications director Jeff Emerson said the governor will work with the school board association "to pass a new law that fixes the problems they've brought to his attention."

Riley signed the law in 2004 "because the goal all along was to streamline the process and make it quicker and easier. The school board association has presented information that indicates that goal has not been achieved," Emerson said.

Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said it is not known how many states continue teacher pay during the appeals process, but her group is working to include that information in its database on collective bargaining agreements. She said she doesn't think the Alabama process is unusual.

"The pressure has been to accommodate the teacher's rights with less attention paid to accommodating the district's fiscal responsibility, so one could easily imagine that Alabama would not be unique," Walsh said from the council's Washington, D.C. headquarters.

Michael Simpson, assistant general counsel for the National Education Association in Washington, also said dismissal procedures in collective bargaining agreements vary from one school system to another as well as from state to state. But he said they typically keep the teacher on the payroll through arbitration under the "innocent until proven guilty" principle.

Lauderdale County Superintendent Bill Valentine says the 2004 law has strained his system, which continued to pay agriculture teacher Terry Wright his salary during the 11 months it took to complete the arbitration. Similar to Taylor's case, arbitration was postponed until after Wright was tried criminally.

He was convicted and the arbitrator ultimately upheld the board's decision to terminate, but the system won't recoup what it paid the teacher.

Laura Wilson, terminated as a cheerleading coach, has continued to draw her annual salary of more than $50,000 from the Madison County school system despite not working there since April 2005.

A hearing officer ruled in November 2005 that Wilson be reinstated despite finding that a number of the charges against her were valid, including using the school gym in a for-profit business. Madison County school officials appealed to the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, which overturned the arbiter's decision last August. But Wilson appealed to the state Supreme Court, so she has continued getting paid while that case is pending.

Hubbert said he suspects school officials are upset because arbitrators are siding with them on fewer cases than the old tenure commission did.

"The truth of the matter is they'd rather not have any guidelines," he said. "It's better in the sense that, if it works as it should under the new law, they'll have to pay teachers for a shorter time."

Elsberry disagrees.

"There are no real safeguards for following the guidelines. Someone can intentionally drag the timeline out," Elsberry said. "It's to the point where a savvy lawyer's going to say 'Hey, my person's getting paid, so I can delay this process."'

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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