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Dismissed Teachers Fight Back

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Fourteen teachers who were fired when the Wilkinsburg, Pa., school board turned over management of an elementary school to a private company have won a round in their battle to get their jobs back.

An outside arbitrator ruled Jan. 10 that the teachers should be rehired with pay and benefits dating back to the start of the school year. District officials quickly vowed to appeal.

The ruling by arbitrator William Caldwell came in response to a grievance filed with the Wilkinsburg school board by the local teachers' union over the teachers' dismissal. The union has been fighting the board's decision to turn over the management of troubled Turner Elementary School to Alternative Public Schools Inc., a Nashville, Tenn.-based company.

Caldwell's ruling was a setback for supporters of the venture, who won a temporary victory in a separate court case in October, when the state supreme court allowed the district's agreement with the company to continue. The high court sent the lawsuit, filed against the district by the local union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, and the National Education Association, back to lower courts.

Barbara Bell, the chief negotiator for the Wilkinsburg Education Association, said in January that the arbitrator based his ruling on three points: that state law makes subcontracting of teaching services illegal; that the district did not give the teachers one-semester notice required by the union's current contract; and that there had been no student-population decline in the 1,900-student district. Under the teachers' contract, Bell said, an enrollment decline is a prerequisite for teacher layoffs.

But Charles Steele, the school district's lawyer, said the arbitrator's ruling was in direct conflict with the state supreme court's decision that the contract with APS could continue. The district's appeal will be heard next by the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.

--Jeanne Ponessa

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