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Hajzus won all battles, but war undecided

| Sunday, Jan. 9, 2005

Thomas Hajzus has won every legal battle, but still lacks what he wants most: his job as principal at Peters Township High School.

The administrator and the Peters School District have invested more than $225,000 wrestling in court over his claim that he was unfairly demoted nearly three years ago.

School officials won't say whether they'll reappoint him to the principal's post, although they concede a state Supreme Court decision last month backing Hajzus left them with no legal avenues to oppose the move. Hajzus has been on administrative leave from his job as director of special programs and projects for more than seven months.

"This is the time for decisions to be made," board President Denise Abraham said. "There's no more room for appeals."

Mark Scott, Hajzus' lawyer, said the district has two options: Reinstate Hajzus, or negotiate a buyout.

School board member Mark Buzzatto said he thinks the panel should put Hajzus back in his old job, place him on administrative leave and then decide what to do.

"It's time for us to obey the law," said Buzzatto, who has voted against district appeals of decisions backing Hajzus.

Scott warned that if the school board doesn't reinstate his client, he could seek a contempt violation, resulting in daily fines reaching into the thousands of dollars. Such a move would be a last resort, Scott said.

Many wonder if the district's fight is worth it. Since the board voted in May 2002 to reassign Hajzus to the newly created special programs job, Peters has spent $102,000 in legal bills on his case, business manager Daniel Solomon said.

Those and future legal costs combined with paying Hajzus $92,000 a year -- the same salary he received as principal -- for the extra administrative job mean the district could wind up spending closer to $500,000 on a losing battle, said former school board member Bill Furedy.

"That's without even paying the first nickel in damages," said Furedy, who repeatedly voted against the district's legal stance in the case. He resigned Jan. 19, 2004, after two years on the board.

"The sad part is, none of it is of any benefit to kids or to taxpayers. It makes you wonder what the agendas are, why the board is letting this continue."

District officials said they can't comment on the case, the practice whenever there is litigation.

"I want to make it clear that the district's policy and practice is not to discriminate against any of its employees," district spokeswoman Cara Zanella said. "Furthermore, the district believes that when this matter is adjudicated, that our position will be vindicated."

But Hajzus -- who has claimed that the district discriminated against him by reassigning him -- has cleared every legal hurdle and won favorable rulings from the state Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, along with the Commonwealth and state Supreme courts.

It's been a costly battle for Hajzus, too. He said he's spent $125,000 in legal bills on a battle that began after he informed district Superintendent Diane L. Kirk in January 2002 that he suffered from depression and anxiety attacks. He was placed on administrative leave, ordered to undergo an independent mental evaluation and ultimately reassigned to the newly created post, after having been high school principal for 11 years.

School board members have said the new post was needed to help the district pick up grant money and oversee home-schooling and other programs.

But Hajzus has yet to obtain any grants and has been on administrative leave since May 28. Scott said the move came in the wake of a verbal altercation between Hajzus and Assistant Superintendent John Hoover, who has since taken over Hajzus' duties.

Hajzus said the district failed to provide him with the means to perform his new job effectively. His struggles with depression and anxiety worsened as a result, he said.

"I was given no secretary and an office in the basement," Hajzus said. "They gave me a clerical assistant who wasn't permitted to file anything, and would send her to my office unannounced. I never had a chance to be successful -- I was set up for failure, which made my health worse."

If he had it to do over again, Hajzus said he'd do nothing different.

"I was wronged and humiliated," he said. "I have to see this through, to stand up for what I believe in."

The legal tussle

July 1990: Thomas Hajzus hired as principal of Peters Township High School.

June 2001: Hajzus begins seeing a psychiatrist for depression.

January 2002: Hajzus submits a letter to Peters Superintendent Diane L. Kirk outlining his psychiatric problems.

Feb. 26, 2002: Kirk informs Hajzus that he is being placed on administrative leave. The district orders him to undergo an independent mental evaluation.

April 24, 2002: A report from Dr. Charolette Hoffman, the independent psychiatrist, recommends Hajzus return to work, with accommodations for late arrival and breaks during the day.

May 13, 2002: School board creates position of director of special programs and projects, reassigns Hajzus to the post.

May 15, 2002: Hajzus requests public hearings before the school board.

January 2003: School board upholds Hajzus' reassignment after series of public hearings.

February 2003: Board promotes Assistant Principal William Englert to high school principal.

March 2003: Hajzus appeals to state secretary of education.

August 2003: Then-Secretary of Education Vicki L. Phillips reverses school board decision. Board elects to appeal the decision to Commonwealth Court.

March 2004: Commonwealth Court upholds Phillips' decision.

May 2004: District appeals to state Supreme Court.

December 2004: State Supreme Court refuses to hear district's appeal.

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