District pays 3 teachers $666K over discrimination

By Brian Bowling
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Elizabeth Forward School District recently shelled out about $666,000 to pay off a federal court judgment for age and sex discrimination involving three female teachers and faces a similar lawsuit by a dozen more teachers.

The school board voted Aug. 2 to pay the $665,975 judgment from the district's funds. That comes to about $87 for each household in the district, which exhausted its insurance coverage to pay legal fees.

Former school board member Bobbie Bauer said that even if the lawsuits don't trigger a tax increase, they make her angry.

"I want to see my taxes go to the kids, to their education, and not to lawsuit after lawsuit after lawsuit," she said.

The teachers accepted the district's salary offers when they took their jobs, and they shouldn't be able to use the courts to change that agreement, Bauer said.

"If that's not a salary that you want to work at, then you don't work here," she said.

Polly Ann Heller, Darla Marraccini and Penny Natale were all in their 50s when the district hired them. They claimed in their 2004 lawsuit that the district subsequently hired younger teachers at higher salaries and paid male teachers more than female teachers in comparable positions. An eight-person federal jury agreed, and an appeals court upheld the verdict earlier this year.

A dozen female teachers hired in the late 1990s made similar claims against the district in a pending 2005 lawsuit. John Smart, the district's lead attorney, said Elizabeth Forward plans to take that case to trial despite losing the first case.

"I think the first jury was wrong," he said.

Two teachers whose higher salaries were cited by the plaintiffs in the first lawsuit teach physics, Smart said. The district has trouble finding qualified physics teachers, and there's nothing in state and federal law that prohibits a school district from offering more money to fill those positions, he said.

"You have to educate your kids. You can't tell your physics students, 'Sorry, we couldn't hire a physics teacher this year,'" Smart said.

Most teachers are hired at the lowest salary level, but when they aren't it is because of the teacher's certifications or experience, he said.

"Age or gender was never a factor in any of these hirings, nor have they ever been," Smart said.

Attorney Samuel Cordes, who represents the three plaintiffs, said the board can hire teachers at different salary levels, but it must have a legitimate reason for paying some teachers more than others.

The jury and a three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Elizabeth Forward officials failed to offer a credible explanation for paying the three teachers less than some of the new hires, he said.

"They changed their reason about seven times," Cordes said. "The jury just absolutely saw through that."

Attorney Colleen Johnston represents the 12 teachers whose sex discrimination lawsuit is still pending against the Elizabeth Forward School District.

In its ruling, the 3rd Circuit said it was clear the district had no clear hiring policy or procedure that it consistently followed, and its attempts to justify hiring some teachers at higher salaries "were unpersuasive and not believable."

The district, which has seven schools, serves 2,932 students from Elizabeth Borough, Elizabeth Township and Forward.