Published Online: March 22, 2005
Published in Print: March 23, 2005, as Iraq Deployments Being Felt in the Schools

Iraq Deployments Being Felt in the Schools

Donald J. Slater, the principal of William H. Hall High School in West Hartford, Conn., was ready to relax in November 2003 after leading his staff through a rigorous evaluation required for regional accreditation.

But not long after ushering a group of evaluators through a weeklong visit, he learned that the 1,600-student school would be temporarily losing a key administrator: Mr. Slater himself. He had been called up to serve in the Iraq war.

A 12-year veteran of the National Guard, Mr. Slater had a month to prepare his school and family for his absence. He spent more than a year in Balad, Iraq, as a major with the 118th Area Support Medical Battalion, providing services to American soldiers and civilians as well as Iraqis. He returned to the school this month.

Connecticut principal Donald J. Slater, left, rides a Stryker tank near his base in Balad, Iraq.
—Courtesy of Donald J. Slater

Two years after the United States began its military operations in Iraq, U.S. elementary and secondary schools are among the organizations that still must cope with the loss of employees to military service.

It appears that few school employees serving in Iraq have died in the conflict. About 1,500 U.S. service members have been killed in the Iraq conflict. That includes a school board member, Todd D. Olson, of Loyal, Wis., a staff sergeant with the Wisconsin National Guard and a board member for the 650-student Loyal district. National organizations representing school boards, administrators, and teachers knew of no other deaths of their members.

However, districts and schools have been forced to grapple with a number of concerns as the U. S. military operations continue for the foreseeable future. Districts must hire substitutes for staff members who have been deployed. They are also faced with reintegrating administrators and teachers into a school system when they’ve been gone for months or more.

Districts also have faced peculiarities related to tenure issues, stemming from when employees leave on long deployments or for multiple deployments.

After Mr. Slater received his deployment notice, Hall High School in the 9,800-student West Hartford school district launched into preparations for the principal’s absence. He was able to wrap up the accreditation process with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. He also gave advice on who should serve as interim principal.

“It’s very challenging to find someone to come in,” he said. “It’s a lot to ask. I wanted to be a part of the process of helping the superintendent decide who was going to replace me.”

But the absence was still hard. The class of 2004 graduated with Mr. Slater thousands of miles away.

“That’s one of my deep regrets,” he said. “I most definitely missed that.”

Tenure Questions

Gail Awakuni, the principal of Campbell High School at Ewa Beach, Hawaii, is missing two science teachers, one special education teacher, and one social studies teacher from her 2,200-student school. All four men are serving in Iraq with the Hawaii National Guard, which has called up more than 88 percent of its members.

“Of course, it’s always difficult finding teachers, and it’s always difficult replacing teachers, especially for the students who have made that bond,” she said.

For many schools, dealing with such situations is becoming, if not routine, then expected. Since they tend to be relatively large organizations, school districts are in a better position than many employers to absorb the loss of personnel. And despite whatever headaches the departures might cause, administrators have been quick to say how proud they are of their employees who serve.

“We just pitch in and do our best. We’ve managed,” said Ms. Awakuni, who expects the teachers, who left late last year and in January, to be gone about 18 months.

William C. Harrison, the superintendent of the 53,000-student Cumberland County, N.C., school district, said his district has had as many as 27 teachers serving at one time, and currently has 15 teachers serving in Iraq or in the military operation in Afghanistan.

Working around the deployment schedule can be challenging, Mr. Harrison said. “Sometimes we don’t know when they’re going,” he said, “if it’s in the middle of the school year or the middle of a semester.”

A federal law, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, requires that military reservists and National Guard members called to active duty must be rehired when they return. In addition, they must be placed in the same position they would have held, and given the same benefits, had they not been deployed.

For schools, that requirement presents questions particular to typical school district employment practices. Does returning to the same position mean the same job at the same school? If a teacher is deployed in the middle of his probationary period, is he off probation when he returns?

“The effects of tenure are profound,” said Lisa Soronen, a staff lawyer with the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. “Tenure is a huge gift. It isn’t something that’s given lightly.”

Mr. Slater poses by a damaged ambulance last year near his base in Balad.
—Master Sgt. James Woodland

The association runs an electronic e-mail group where school district lawyers across the country have bounced those and other queries off one another.

“In my experience, the greater number of questions deal with returning veterans,” D. Scott Bennett, a lawyer for the 40,000-student Hamilton County, Tenn., district, which includes Chattanooga, said of the e-mail exchanges. “But I think school districts are very sophisticated about what their obligations are, and the servicemen understand what their obligations are.”

School law experts said they were familiar with one published legal decision arising out of the 1994 federal statute and involving a school employee’s military service. In 2001, Andrew Akhdary sued the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County which controlled the school system where Mr. Akhdary had worked as a teacher since 1975. A native of Egypt, he enrolled in the U.S. Navy Reserve in 1978, eventually becoming an intelligence officer with a knowledge of Arabic.

Mr. Akhdary’s suit alleged that his absences from school for military service hampered his professional advancement. For example, when he was being interviewed for an administrative position, an assistant principal allegedly asked him, “If we hire you, are you going to be still gone like you are always gone?”

A U.S. district judge threw out part of his suit in 2002 because the allegations related to events that happened years earlier. But he allowed part of the suit to proceed to trial.

Andrew L. Berke, Mr. Akhdary’s lawyer, said that after that ruling, Hamilton County settled the suit without an admission of wrongdoing. Mr. Akhdary received $47,000 and an adjustment to his retirement pay.

“The actual discrimination that was alleged occurred before September 11, 2001, but not long before,” Mr. Berke said. “I believe there was a change in attitude about the treatment of people who are reservists following [the terrorist attacks of] September 11.”

Multiple Deployments

Some educators have been deployed to Iraq more than once.

Alan Smith, a 5th grade teacher and a colonel in the Marine Forces Reserve, has been deployed twice from his position at the 900-student Little Egg Harbor Intermediate School in Little Egg Harbor, N.J.

During his first mobilization, from February 2002 to August 2003, he was the national director of ombudsman services for the Arlington, Va.-based Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, which educates employers on how to support military personnel. During his second deployment, from February to August of last year, he served in Baghdad with the Joint Area Support Group, which provided logistical support to coalition troops.

Mr. Smith said his own school district has been very supportive. Other employers, he said, are not always as compliant.

“The second time someone has been mobilized, while the employers are certainly patriotic and supportive of their members, they still have businesses to run,” Mr. Smith said.

Many deployment issues are worked out at the school level, Ms. Soronen of the NSBA said. For instance, a teacher may choose to accept a short-term assignment as a substitute, if his or her return would otherwise disrupt a class

The U.S. Department of Labor is writing more regulations regarding the uniformed-services re-employment law. The NSBA has asked for clarifications on issues related to teacher tenure and military service, especially where federal rules and state law seem to conflict.

For instance, under North Carolina law, school districts in that state can decide not to renew the contracts of probationary teachers at the end of a school year, as long as the decision is not arbitrary, capricious, or discriminatory, said Rachel B. Hitch, a Raleigh, N.C., lawyer who specializes in school law. But the federal re-employment act says that employees returning from active military duty can be dismissed only for cause.

It remains unclear, Ms. Hitch said, whether a district’s decision to not renew the contract of a probationary teacher returning from military service would meet the federal law’s requirement of dismissing the employee for cause.

“People are trying to feel this law out a little,” said Ms. Hitch. “Everyone’s supportive of the concept” of giving military service members their old jobs back.

“School folks just want a clear understanding of their obligations,” she said.

Show and Tell

When school employees are deployed, they don’t make the transition alone. Many have said their school communities embraced them during their service.

At Hall High School in Connecticut, the school led by Mr. Slater, students and teachers adopted his medical battalion, showering the National Guard members with gifts such as Girl Scout cookies, T-shirts, and toiletries on a monthly basis.

In return, the principal stayed in close contact with his students through e-mailed photographs, including one of a shiny black beetle with pincers that crept into a soldier’s bed.

He spared his students and family stories about the frightening parts of his service. Camp Anaconda, where he was based, had more than 20,000 military personnel by the time he left and was a frequent target of attacks. Six hundred mortar attacks hit the camp during his time there.

“It was scary,” Mr. Slater said. “You could be walking to a shower and mortar would fall. Or a mortar could come rolling into your tent.” No one in his battalion was injured or killed during its time in Iraq.

He has been gradually readjusting to life as a principal. The day after his March 8 return to school, he had to head to work in a late-winter snowstorm, a drastic change from the rolling sandscapes of Iraq. But while the snow snarled traffic and forced schools to open late, Mr. Slater said he didn’t mind the drive at all.

PHOTO: Students greet Hall High’s principal, Donald J. Slater, on March 2 after his one-year service in Iraq. Left, Mr. Slater poses by a damaged ambulance last year near his base in Balad.
—Cloe Poisson/The Hartford Courant

Vol. 24, Issue 28, Pages 1,17

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