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Former cheer coach's pay continues during appeal

MONTGOMERY (AP) — A Madison County cheerleading coach fired in 2005 after being accused of financial misdeeds and insubordination has continued to be paid while appealing — and will keep getting checks even though the Alabama Supreme Court ruled against her.

The court on Friday sent the case of Laura Wilson back to an arbitrator for a rehearing, and the state's new teacher dismissal law allows her to remain on the payroll as the process starts over.

The court did not render a final judgment upholding her firing, but it agreed with a state appeals court that found the
arbitrator wrongly used collective bargaining standards in deciding she should get her job back.

"We're elated with the court ruling because it gives clear direction to the arbitrators that they must follow Alabama law," Sally Howell, director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, said Tuesday.

"It is significant because it recognizes teacher and school employees are working in a unique atmosphere and will not apply general labor law rules."

Wilson's long-running termination case is one of several that popped up throughout Alabama after a 2004 amendment to teacher tenure laws allowed teachers who appeal their terminations to keep getting paid through the process.

Then-Madison County Superintendent Ray Swaim informed Wilson in 2005 she was being terminated on the grounds of "insubordination, neglect of duty, failure to perform duties in a satisfactory manner, or other good and just cause."

He listed 14 charges for his decision in a March letter, including that Wilson altered checks made out to the school and deposited them in her personal account, used the high school's gym to run a gymnastics business and lost $5,970 in cheerleader funds during the 2003-2004 school year.

But Wilson appealed the firing, sending the case to an arbitrator who ruled in November 2005 that she be reinstated despite finding that she broke more than a dozen school rules.

Madison County school officials appealed to the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, which overturned the arbiter's decision last August, saying he should not have used collective-bargaining standards in his decision.

Wilson appealed that to the State Supreme Court, which released its ruling Friday saying the justices agreed with the Civil Appeals finding that the arbitrator's decision was "arbitrary and capricious" and ordered a new hearing in the case.

Huntsville attorney Robert Lockwood, one of several lawyers hired by the Alabama Education Association to represent Wilson, said it's possible they could request a rehearing on the Supreme Court ruling.

"We intend to comply with the decision of the Alabama Supreme Court," he said. "We look forward to representing Mrs. Wilson and we are confident that she will again prevail at the hearing officer level in the future."

According to the county's pay scale, a person with Wilson's credentials would have made at least $46,000 annually in 2005 and with raises and two more years of experience, such a teacher would be making a base salary of more than $54,000 this year.

Current Madison County Superintendent Terry Davis said it could be March or April before the new hearing is held, but he hopes the back-and-forth between the parties is over.

"I think both parties would like to see this resolved as quickly as possible," he said. "This is basically a teacher unit that we have out there. This is one teacher less that we have serving kids."

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

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