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Our Views: Janesville School District strikes good deal with exiled teacher

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August 15, 2013

You don't have to like that a teacher accused of coming to work drunk walked away with $18,452 from the Janesville School District. Judging from Tuesday's discussion on WCLO's “Your Talk Show,” many residents don't.

Callers to Tim Bremel's show were angry that Maria Caya got that amount and health and dental coverage through Aug. 31 in a separation agreement.

No question, when a teacher supposedly is so intoxicated during a school field trip that her husband is called and she winds up in an emergency room, she has engaged in egregious wrongdoing. But it's time for a reality check. Ask any good human resources professional about it, and you're likely to learn it was a sound deal for the district.

The money amounted to unused sick days that Caya accumulated during her 14 years with the district. Teachers get up to 10 sick days each year, and someone working 20 years and reaching age 55 can trade unused days for health insurance in retirement.

Was someone accused of being drunk at work entitled to that benefit at age 50? That's debatable, but no one knows for sure how a court might rule on the issue. Critics would argue, “So what? The district shouldn't have paid a dime, and it should have waged that legal war on principle, regardless of cost.”

That's hypocritical because such critics are among the first to harp about wasteful spending. The deal made the district a good steward of our tax dollars.

There's more to the situation, however. Those who would vilify the teachers union for helping wrest that money from the district ignore laws designed to protect all workers.

If Caya had claimed an alcohol dependency and requested treatment under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the district may have been required to accommodate her. Whether that request would stand up in court after her apparent wrongdoing is uncertain. But if the district had challenged that request, it may have lost and wound up with Caya back in the classroom after treatment.

No one—not district officials, not residents in general and certainly not parents—would have wanted that. Instead, for the price of her unused sick days, the district made a clean break and avoided any costly investigation, any possible lawsuit and any chance she would return to teaching district kids.

One more point must be stressed. The law classifies alcohol abuse as a disease, and Caya reportedly was taking Ativan, a prescribed drug. That suggests alcoholism or an underlying condition such as anxiety, depression or insomnia. Ativan compounds effects of alcohol.

Someone in the district may have suspected or known Caya was having problems before that June 6 field trip. If so, those coworkers might have remained silent because privacy laws protect workers dealing with medical problems. We've heard nothing to suggest a pattern of misconduct or that problems hindered Caya's performance before this incident. If a staffer did know about her problems and the district did nothing, however, the district faced a costly and possibly losing court fight and embarrassment.

That scenario may have been the case given that the district agreed not to contest any request by Caya for unemployment compensation. Employees typically do not get unemployment benefits after misconduct.

Rather than using union threats, Caya probably knew she would be terminated and agreed to go away quietly if the district paid unused sick time.

We'll never know the full story, but it matters not. Instead of a windfall for someone whose teaching career has been crushed and who has medical issues that need treatment, $18,000 was a minimal amount and a good remedy for everyone involved.



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