Opp BOE faces possible lawsuit

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 16, 2003

The poor economy and proration have left many teachers without contracts for the coming school year, but at least one local employee believes his termination was not based on proration, but retaliation.

Randy Crowley, a mechanical technician with Opp City Schools, was present with his attorney, Charles Norton, at a special called meeting of the Opp Board of Education Monday morning for a hearing in which he protested his termination. The meeting was held in an open session, rather than the closed session in which personnel matters are usually handled.

"I think this is the kind of issue that ought to be aired," said Norton later. He and Crowley made the decision not to go into executive session.

Norton began the hearing with an immediate implication that Crowley was not released because of financial issues.

"There is no financial reason to (terminate Mr. Crowley)," said his attorney, Norton. "I

believe he's being retaliated against."

According to Norton, Superintendent Dr. Timothy Lull was motivated by retaliation because Crowley was among those school employees across the state who benefited from the state-wide overtime audit, in which the employees were recompensed for overtime hours worked.

Norton also said Crowley felt he was treated unfairly by his supervisor, Harold Jones, stating he was talking about him to other employees, claiming he was the one who called the Labor Department in for the audit. Norton also said Crowley approached Lull about filing a grievance against Jones.

Lull corroborated this, but said Crowley never filed the paperwork necessary for a formal grievance, but

that he (Lull) had spoken to the supervisor about not talking about other employees. Later, Crowley said that he did not know about the proper procedure involving filing a grievance until speaking to his AEA representative Vivian Jones, and by then, the five-day period in which to file had expired.

Norton argued that recent legislation, which states that the State of Alabama will be giving schools the same amount of funding they received last year, negates the 8 percent cut Opp City Schools were forced to make, and that there is now no financial reason to terminate Crowley.

Lull told the board that the maintenance positions and office staff are paid for out of local funds, not state, and the local funds which were down between $2-3,000 from three years ago and were not likely to rise since the declared bankruptcy of Opp-Micolas Mills, the school's largest supporter from the tax rolls.

Later, Norton told the Star-News that he didn't think local funds would be cut by the City of Opp.

At one point, Lull said that there might have been others in the maintenance department with less seniority than Crowley, but later amended that after referring to records, and said that the others still employed had seniority.

"One has 18 years, another has 15 years, and one has 20 years," said Lull.

Crowley has been employed with the Opp system since 1991, a total of 12 years. Although his title is mechanical technician, he was primarily in charge of the HVAC unit. In a statement he read to the board toward the end of the meeting, Crowley outlined the many duties he performed in his job, including repairing and maintaining refrigeration and air conditioning equipment, including compressors, coils

and condensers; preventative maintenance; repairing, maintaining and replacing electric motors; maintaining the tools required for the job (many of which Crowley stated he provided himself); cleaning coils and filters, maintaining fire alarm, clock and intercom systems; making additions, extensions and alterations to electrical installations; working on high voltage equipment; installing, maintaining and repairing boilers, pumps and other equipment; and repairing and replacing plumbing fixtures and equipment.

The equipment Crowley oversaw

included the three steam boilers of the schools, the cooling towel, ventilation units, refrigeration systems, HVAC units, and other pumps, motors and compressors and boilers.

Norton questioned the board about Lull's actions, asking if he had acted without approval. He was told by Lull that the actions were all approved and were in the minutes of the May 19, 2003 meeting, when the action was taken to eliminate Crowley's position, as well as several others, including aids and one other maintenance worker. When Norton demanded to see the minutes from the May 19 meeting immediately, Wesley Laird, attorney for the school board, responded.

"We will be providing your board minutes right now," said Laird. "I'm not going to allow you to turn this into a grandstand."

The minutes of the May 19 meeting were provided shortly after that.

Laird also told the attorney that it was he and Lull who instigated the overtime audit by the Labor Department after a seminar they attended, when they wanted to make sure they were in legal compliance.

Norton asked how the city planned to

compensate for the loss of Crowley's position and the duties thereof, and Lull said that some jobs, such as changing the filters, would be absorbed by the remaining maintenance workers, and other duties requiring specific HVAC knowledge would be contracted out. He said the school board was currently in the process of developing a bid package. Lull said he had "asked around" about pricing and aspects of the job, including some consultation with Trane Air Conditioning.

When Norton questioned the legality of using a potential bidder on the contract for consultation in drawing up the bid, he was told by Lull that it was legal.

"We'll see about that," said Norton.

Both Norton and Crowley indicated that the city could not get the same services Crowley had provided for less money. Crowley stated the superintendent of Coffee County Schools, where he worked prior to coming to Opp, credited him with saving that school system about $80,000.

"You're making a big mistake to terminate this person," said Norton. "He's a valuable employee."

In his address to the board, Crowley said that in the 12 years he had been with the school system, he had been called in from his vacation every time to repair a problem with the HVAC units or something else, even postponing his entire vacation last year when lightning storms did a great deal of electrical damage just before school started. He said that before the automation of the HVAC system, he would come in

Fridays, or Saturday when there was Saturday school, to turn the units off to save money, then return Sunday night to turn them on again.

'For three years, I was in here every weekend," said Crowley. "That's where that overtime came in."

Norton urged the board to reconsider the termination of his client, at least until "the facts were in" about the recent statute and funding. He asked them to suspend a decision on the case until the impact of the new law could be assessed, or, he said, they should "carry through with the real reason."

"The guy made trouble and now you're getting rid of him," Norton said. He again urged the board to reconsider.

"There's no reason to rush to injustice," he said.

Despite Crowley's and Norton's arguments, the board voted unanimously to uphold Lull's decision to terminate Crowley.

"You've made a huge mistake," said Norton. "You should be ashamed of yourselves."

Later Monday, Crowley said he plans to pursue further legal action. Monday afternoon, Norton, said that Crowley would have a fair dismissal hearing within the next 60 days with and unbiased hearing officer. After that, he said, he and Crowley were still considering legal options. He said he hopes to see a change of heart from the school board.

"I really hoped they'd reconsider, but they showed no signs of it today," Norton said, "It's hard to talk with a brick wall."