School is out for the summer but that’s not all teachers have to smile about, thanks to a victory in a precedent-setting case involving Harford County Public Schools, freedom of speech and Chris Battaglia.
Battaglia is known as the former assistant principal who ran afoul of Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas after he let it slip he was being transferred from C. Milton Wright High School and his supporters turned out at a Board of Education meeting to protest the move. Not only was Battaglia admired by parents and students, prior to the public outcry he was also highly regarded by his employer.
He had been praised in performance reviews, recommended for a merit raise and trusted to serve as interim principal. But after the uproar at the board meeting, Battaglia was demoted to a teaching position. The Superintendent called that a ”transfer” too, but with the 30% pay cut, it was hard to see it that way. So with four kids and a mortgage, Battaglia reluctantly sought a position outside of Harford County Public Schools. But when Battaglia tried to move on, it was the Superintendent who wouldn’t let go.
Battaglia’s new job was to start in April, meaning he would need early release from his teaching contract, a fairly routine request. Superintendent Haas refused unless Battaglia signed an unprecedented separation agreement which released the school system from any claims relating to his demotion, prohibited him from reapplying for a job in Harford County Public Schools ever again and prevented him from making any public remarks to anyone outside the school system regarding his employment – in other words a gag-order. In exchange for these conditions, the Superintendent agreed not to seek suspension of his teaching certificate and would release him without prejudice.
A gag-order relating to the operations of an organization may be justified if a departing employee is privy to trade secrets or has agreed to a financial settlement or when an investigation is in progress. But the operations of Harford County Public Schools are conducted on behalf of the public, and with few exceptions are open to the public by law. What is justifiable about preventing a former employee who is also a parent and a taxpayer, from offering public comment on anything from school uniforms to curriculum?
If Superintendent Haas was worried Battaglia would talk about something in particular, conspiracy theorists certainly have their pick of possibilities. As a school administrator, Battaglia knew what went on behind the scenes. He also demonstrated a propensity for candor. He had spoken to the media about his demotion in the past and testified in favor of an elected school board, citing the treatment he received as evidence of the need for greater public oversight.
As an assistant principal, Battaglia developed a highly successful 9th grade transition program and he had the data to prove it. But the block-schedule component of the controversial high school reform plan known as CSSRP made it difficult to continue the program. It was soon displaced by the course known as “Living in a Contemporary World” which has since been widely discredited.
And finally, Battaglia had worked closely with William Ekey, the now-retired administrator familiar to Dagger readers, who was among the members of the public seeking an unbiased review of CSSRP. Ekey put pressure on the school system by publicly expressing doubts about the benefits of CSSRP and posing informed questions about the data, or lack thereof, being used to evaluate the plan. Perhaps there were concerns Battaglia would follow the same path.
Or maybe there was no reason other than opportunism. If Battaglia was desperate because he had bills to pay, why not use that as leverage to get something in return? Regardless of the motive, a public school system has no right use its power over an employee to squelch public speech or to avoid public scrutiny.
By this time, the lawyer for the Maryland State teachers’ union, Kristy K. Anderson, had seen enough. In a scathing appeal to the Board of Education on Battaglia’s behalf, she noted she had never before encountered an agreement containing such a broad gag-order or the “unconscionable” release of personnel files. The appeal sought a finding that the Superintendent’s actions were retaliatory and arbitrary.
Battaglia refused to sign. But with bills mounting and a promotion waiting, he was eager to be free. So he offered to refrain from discussing his demotion in public and another agreement was offered for his signature, this time in the form of a letter made to look as if it had been written by Battaglia. The letter chillingly expanded the original gag-order to include any public statements about “the operation of Harford County Public Schools in general.” To ensure compliance, the letter went on to say if Battaglia violated any of the provisions of the proposed agreement, his confidential personnel files could be released by school officials.
Superintendent Haas countered with a motion to dismiss. To its credit, the Board of Education denied the Superintendent’s motion and although they declined to rule on her motives, the board’s written decision not only affirmed the basis for Battaglia’s appeal, it averted a dangerous precedent by concluding the Superintendent’s attempts to negotiate conditions of release with any teacher were inconsistent with the intent of state law. The board remanded such decisions back to Haas with two general guidelines. She was to consider the reasons for the request and balance that with the needs of the school system, period. No gag-orders, no waivers of confidentiality, no pre-conditions of any kind.
Keeping in mind the school year ended on June 13th, Battaglia’s lawyer received a letter from Superintendent Haas on June 3rd, demanding Battaglia make his case under the new guidelines. With only 8 working days left in his contract, the point was moot but the timing and the tone of the letter made it clear Battaglia would be held to the bitter end.
Battaglia’s contract has finally expired and he has officially resigned. He leaves with regret because he still cares about the school community he served. But he’s not sorry he fought being bound and gagged because in his words “I didn’t want this to happen to anyone else”. Thanks to Chris Battaglia, it won’t.
This is Battaglia’s letter to his supporters, e-mailed June 24 and published with his permission:
An Open Letter of Thanks:
I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has been so supportive of me and my family during my seven years in Harford County Public Schools, but especially for the outpouring of love you expressed over the past year. June 30, 2008 marks the end of my employment with HCPS, an end which came much sooner than I had hoped. The purpose of this letter is to both thank everyone for the seven greatest years in my educational career and also to update you on my next endeavor.
I have accepted a position with a private company that offers tutoring programs, homebound teaching assistance, and runs alternative schools for students across the country. I was asked to move to Florida in April to run approximately 12 DBI (Drop Back In) schools. These schools recruit former students who have dropped out and are interested in turning their lives around by “dropping back in” to school so they can get their high school diplomas. We rent space in churches and office buildings and use computer programs and individualized instruction to help each returning student acquire the credits he/she needs to graduate as well as prepare him/her for state assessments. Because I was unable to leave at that time, that position has now changed and I will be working in the corporate office in Baltimore with the tutoring and homebou nd education programs.
I have no ill feelings toward HCPS and would love to work as an administrator in the system if my new career is not a “good fit” for us. It was made clear to me that administrative options are not open to me at this time in HCPS, but with the passage of time, I am hopeful that personal feelings could be put aside and my abilities as an administrator and my personnel file would speak loudly in favor of another opportunity to work for HCPS.
Once again, thank you from the bottom of my heart! I truly believe God has a plan. For example, if I was not prevented from leaving in April, I would be living in Florida and commuting home on weekends. If not for my reassignment to teaching, I would never have gotten the chance to meet the students in my classes and develop strong relationships with them. I would never have gotten the chance to experience all the overwhelming love and support from the many parents, students, colleagues, politicians and even strangers from across the county and state during the past year. And finally, this experience brought our family closer together and also strengthened our faith.
Ps. Please forward to anyone who you think would like the update. I would like everyone to know how thankful we are.