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SJC rules on school chiefs’ authority

Physics teacher’s firing is upheld

The state’s highest court said Monday that the authority of public school superintendents to discipline teachers cannot be undermined by arbitrators, a decision that will keep a former Lexington High School teacher out of the classroom for violating the district’s sexual harassment policy.

The ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court interpreted the interplay between teachers, superintendents, and arbitrators under a 1993 state law that shifted disciplinary authority to superintendents and away from elected school committees.

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In the 5-1 ruling, the majority concluded that an arbitrator was wrong to undo the decision by Lexington Superintendent Paul B. Ash to fire Mark Zagaeski for “conduct unbecoming a teacher.’’

“The teacher dismissal statute does not grant the arbitrator the discretion to adjust the discipline selected by the school district,’’ Justice Francis X. Spina wrote for the majority. “The purpose of the [1993 law] was not to enhance the employment rights of public school teachers.’’

In a telephone interview, Ash said the ruling now empowers school leaders like himself to use the 1993 law to dismiss teachers who violate ethical rules, as well as those found to be incompetent in the classroom without interference later on from arbitrators.

“Once I’ve met the burden of proof for dismissal, the case is over” and an arbitrator cannot substitute a different sanction, such as suspension instead of termination, Ash said.

An attorney for Zagaeski could not be reached for comment.

According to the court, Zagaeski was a well-respected physics teacher assigned to students with academic struggles, behavioral issues, and learning disabilities, which led him to develop a classroom style with “nontraditional boundaries.’’

In spring 2011, a 17-year-old female student asked Zagaeski whether she could pay him for a better grade, a comment that led a male student to ask “You mean short of sexual favors?” Zagaeski responded by saying, “Yes, that is the only thing that would be accepted.’’

Students laughed, and Zagaeski sternly told the student her request was “ridiculous” and that the only way she could improve her marks was studying harder or getting extra help from him after school, according to the SJC.

Two days later, the student did go to him for help after school where she once again asked him if she could buy a better grade, a request made while another female student was in the classroom, the SJC said.

“Well, no . . . you know that the only thing that I would accept is a sexual favor,” Zagaeski replied, according to the SJC.

The student complained, and Ash fired Zagaeski.

An arbitrator agreed that Zagaeski’s actions constituted sexual harassment, and that his behavior was “conduct unbecoming’’ under the 1993 law. But the arbitrator ruled that Zagaeski was a good teacher who should be kept in the classroom, changed the punishment to two days’ suspension, and ordered his rehiring.

The SJC majority said they also believed Zagaeski engaged in sexual harassment and that his behavior was so out of line that he should be fired. The court said Zagaeski’s prior academic performance cannot be used to outweigh his improper behavior toward the student.

“Public school teachers hold a position of special public trust. They are responsible for more than teaching basic academic skills,’’ Spina wrote.

John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.
com
. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.
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