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Teacher-turned-lawmaker, school district battle at termination hearing

Updated: 2013-03-09T02:50:15Z

By Mark Schlinkmann

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

— Attorneys for the Francis Howell School District and state Rep. Bryan Spencer squared off Friday at a daylong termination hearing for Spencer, a longtime teacher.

The district started the firing process after rejecting Spencer's request for unpaid leave while he is in the Legislature, which opened this year's session in January.

“Despite that denial, Mr. Spencer stopped coming to work on Jan. 8,” said Cindy Ormsby, a lawyer for the district. “He has been excessively absent. He has abandoned his contract with the district.”

A lawyer for Spencer, Alex Kourbatov, sought to show that Spencer — a Republican from Wentzville — was treated differently than 18 teachers and other employees who were approved for a leave over the past 10 years.

Among those getting unpaid leave were an official of the Missouri National Education Association and three teachers who served as president of its Howell affiliate. The MNEA is a teachers union usually allied with Democrats.

“He has every intent to come back as a teacher,” Kourbatov said of Spencer. “Eighteen people were granted, Mr. Spencer was denied. There exists no good reason for his denial.”

Among others given unpaid leave of varying length, according to district records submitted by Kourbatov, were two teachers whose husbands' employers transferred them to other countries and one selected to help plan the state's student testing in the region.

Three others received unpaid leave for personal or family reasons.

The state Constitution bars legislators from simultaneously holding most other government employment, including teaching in public schools.

So Spencer had asked for the unpaid leave to allow him to return to a job with the district when his career in the Legislature ends.

Under state law, the termination hearing is held before the school board. The teacher can then appeal to the courts if he disagrees with the outcome.

The hearing was open to the public, unlike board discussions on Spencer's leave request which were in closed executive sessions. The state MNEA president will be questioned by deposition later.

At the hearing, Steve Griggs, the district's chief human resources officer, said various factors go into deciding whether to give unpaid leave but that the “major consideration is impact on students.”

Griggs, responding to questions from Kourbatov, said the timing of Spencer's leave request could have made it more difficult to attract “highest quality replacements.”

That, he said, is because Spencer's initial requested two-year leave would have begun in the middle of the current school year and ended in the middle of another. Missouri House terms run for two calendar years.

Griggs said that the decision on granting leaves rests with the school board.

Ormsby, the district's lawyer, repeatedly objected to Kourbatov's questions about the district's leave policy.

“This hearing is not about whether or not Mr. Spencer was granted a leave of absence,” she said. “That is water under the bridge. It's about his not coming to work.”

Ormsby, in an interview, added that the district maintains that the state ban on government employees serving in the Legislature would have applied to Spencer even if he had gotten the unpaid leave. That's because he still would be an employee in such a situation, she said.

Kourbatov in the hearing said the legal counsel for the Missouri House told Spencer that the employment ban didn't apply to government workers on unpaid leave.

He also noted that the constitutional provision refers to “lucrative office or employment.”

Several supporters of Spencer carried signs at the hearing with messages such as “Save Spencer,” “Sue Them Spencer” and “FHS School Board Puts Union 1st and Students 2nd.”

Board president Marty Hodits has said the union officials' situation is different than Spencer's because in their roles they spend full time on education matters and interact often with the school district. Spencer and his allies say education is one of his emphases in the Legislature.

© 2013 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, www.stltoday.com. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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