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Wilson teacher discipline case drags on amid hearing officer’s health problems

WILSON – For five years, the Wilson Central School District has been trying to fire a teacher and have his teaching certificate revoked.

But major health problems for the state hearing officer who is considering the case in a marathon hearing have delayed a decision for almost two years. In the meantime, costs to taxpayers have mounted well above the $750,000 mark.

However, the end may be in sight. Hearing officer Douglas J. Bantle said Tuesday, “State Ed and I have had conversations on the potential date I’ll have it done.”

Bantle said he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome in July 2012, the month after the trial-like hearing ended. It’s a debilitating disease that caused him to sleep most of the time.

After he started to recover from that, Bantle said he was in a car accident on Route 20 in Pavilion in October 2013 and suffered 14 rib fractures, a collapsed lung and a separated shoulder.

State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, said he intends to introduce a bill to allow for a case to be transferred if a hearing officer suffers a long-term illness. State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. told him that there is no provision to do that now. “There’s no system to switch out an arbitrator? What if the guy dies?” Maziarz asked.

“The state’s dropped the ball on this issue,” Wilson School Superintendent Michael S. Wendt said.

Carl Korn, spokesman for New York State United Teachers, which supplied the teacher’s attorney, said the accused is a high school physical-education teacher. A source with knowledge of the case said he was accused of communicating with a female student outside of school hours, which the girl’s parents found objectionable. No criminal charges were filed.

Wendt said privacy rules forbid him from discussing details of the case. But he said, “There has been significant cost in terms of time and resources. It’s a cause of great concern for the district.”

Maziarz said Wendt told him last fall that the case had cost the Wilson district more than $750,000 and that the cost continues to rise. By law, the district must continue to pay the teacher, who is on administrative leave. It also is paying a substitute to perform that teacher’s job.

When he was placed on leave in March 2009, the teacher was earning $51,634 a year. That figure has grown with the Wilson Teachers Association’s contractual raises. Also, the district has been paying the Hodgson Russ law firm to prosecute the case. Karl W. Kristoff, the school’s attorney, was unable to provide that cost figure Tuesday.

Bantle said the Education Department is paying him $1,400 every day he works on the case. Kristoff said the hearing lasted 22 days, spread over two years, and generated a 4,000-page transcript, not counting evidentiary exhibits.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Korn said. “The teacher involved is an excellent teacher, and he should be back in the classroom, helping children.”

Kristoff said the heaviest penalty Bantle could impose would be to order the teacher’s firing. But Kristoff said the district also has sent a claim of “moral turpitude” to the Education Department. If the teacher were found guilty of that, his teaching certificate would be revoked, ending his chance of working again in any New York State school.