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New Kensington-Arnold fights teacher's reinstatement

| Monday, March 16, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

The New Kensington-Arnold School District wants a Westmoreland County judge to throw out an arbitrator's ruling that a fired teacher should be reinstated.

The arbitrator ruled the district failed to follow proper procedures in the suspension and termination of Joseph Edward Melnick, a middle school choir teacher fired in May 2014 for “immorality.”

The ruling states Melnick should be reinstated and offered back pay.

The school board voted unanimously to fire Melnick, 30, of Harrison after he entered a probationary program stemming from two drug charges for possession of marijuana and a drug pipe. Melnick was acquitted of a gun charge involving a sawed-off shotgun. The charges resulted from an April 2013, search of the Natrona Heights home he shared with his brother.

Melnick in February 2014 was sentenced to a “probation without verdict” option that would allow him to clear his record once he successfully completes two years of probation.

The school district suspended Melnick without pay the day after his arrest, pending resolution of the criminal charges. He never returned to his job that paid about $44,000 per year.

According to court documents, Superintendent John Pallone in June 2014 wrote Melnick a letter informing him the school board had determined: “Your conduct demonstrates a lack of sound judgment which offends the morals of the Commonwealth; is a bad example to the youth whose ideals a professional educator has duty to foster and elevate; and violates the well-defined public policy of protecting children in school from the dangers of drugs and drug use.”

Melnick filed a grievance through the New Kensington-Arnold teachers union and requested an arbitrator from the state's Bureau of Mediation to hear the case, an option laid out in the union's contract.

Arbitrator Stephen H. Jordan in October heard arguments from both sides and issued his ruling in January.

The New Kensington-Arnold Education Association maintained the district violated Melnick's due process rights in several ways, according to Jordan's written analysis of the case:

• The district informed him on April 4, 2013, that he was immediately suspended without pay. An April 10 letter offered him a required Loudermill hearing April 17 at which he could discuss the charges. Melnick, the union and the district agreed to postpone the hearing until after the disposition of his charges.

The union argued Melnick should have been offered the hearing before he was suspended. Jordan agreed and ruled Melnick is due back pay for the period of April 4 to 16, 2013.

• The union argued the district did not follow procedure outlined in the state Public School Code for notifying an employee of his termination.

Specifically, the union says notification of the board's “charges” against Melnick should have come from board President Bob Pallone, not the superintendent; those charges were not “attested to” by the board secretary; the notification did not specify the section on the school code under which the charges were brought; and the letter did not specify a time and place for a hearing that would allow Melnick to contest the termination.

The arbitrator found the district's May 14 letter to be “fatally defective as a statement of charges as it does not comply with the mandatory requirements” of the school code.

Jordan upheld the grievance and ordered the district to restore Melnick to his former position; pay him for the period since May 29, 2014; reinstate his benefits; and reimburse him any costs he accrued that would have been covered by his benefits.

The union had argued Melnick's actions “do not constitute immorality under the School Code.”

Jordan's findings indicated it was “unnecessary” for him to rule upon that or any other issues brought by the union and the district because they would not be valid unless Melnick's termination is completed properly.

The school district in February asked Westmoreland County Judge Anthony G. Marsili to vacate the arbitrator's decision.

On the dispute of the timing of when Melnick's first due process hearing was offered in April 2013, the district noted Melnick and the union asked for the hearing to be postponed and acknowledged in a letter that the district was “not violating any of his due process rights by postponing his Loudermill hearing at our request.”

The district argued Melnick and the union opted to go through the grievance process and waived a second hearing when he was notified of his impending termination.

To set a time and location for that hearing would have been “a useless act” in light of the waiver, the district argued.

The district also argued Jordan did not have jurisdiction to decide the dispute because Melnick accepted probation without verdict, which is essentially a guilty plea and “results in a foregone conclusion of immorality under the School Code” and “case law establishes drug use by a professional employee violates public policy and is immoral conduct.”

Fritz Fekete, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association that is representing Melnick and the local union, declined to comment.

Ray Sekula, the district's labor attorney, did not respond to a request for comment.

Marsili scheduled the two sides to argue their cases before him on June 17.

Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or lhayes@tribweb.com

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