By RYAN DUNN
A Liberty-Benton High School teacher, fired in 2013, must be immediately reinstated and provided two years of back pay, Hancock County Common Pleas Judge Reginald Routson has ruled.
Routson said the school board did not show “good and just cause” to fire teacher Mark Badertscher, based on 10 claims initially made by the board against the teacher.
The school board failed to demonstrate that Badertscher “engaged in both willful and persistent violations” of school policies, “as it alleged in its notice of termination,” the judge said.
Badertscher taught in the district for 22 years until the school board fired him last year. The decision followed a May 2012 incident in which an unsupervised student put another student in a chokehold in Badertscher’s classroom.
The school board suspended Badertscher without pay in June 2012 and gave him notice of the district’s intention to begin termination proceedings against him.
The board’s subsequent decision to fire Badertscher was made despite an Ohio Department of Education referee’s report that said Badertscher should be reinstated.
In a 42-page decision issued this week, Judge Routson said the board “unnecessarily limited” its argument by not including the chokehold incident in its list of 10 reasons for the firing.
“A simple, properly framed assertion that the events of May 23, 2012, constituted good and just cause would have altered the referee’s entire approach to the case,” Routson wrote.
On that day, three students asked to take their senior exams early. Badertscher agreed, and briefly left the remaining students while he set up computers for the exams, according to Routson.
Badertscher’s classroom was divided into two sections, accessible through a door in a separating wall. One side included desks, and it sat adjacent to a larger room with work stations.
As Badertscher exited, one student performed a chokehold on another student, apparently leaving the victim briefly unconscious, Routson wrote.
Badertscher returned and noticed nothing wrong, and no one in the class told him about the incident, according to Routson.
As part of its notice of intent to fire Badertscher, the school board listed 10 reasons for firing him, including his failure to supervise the classroom and report problems, Routson wrote.
The 10 reasons did not include the chokehold incident, Routson wrote. That incident was included in a subsequent paragraph as an unnumbered, additional cause, the judge wrote.
“However, the wording and layout selected by the board would lead a reasonable person to believe there were only 10 grounds supporting dismissal,” Routson wrote.
A state referee, after an August 2012 hearing, concluded the board would be wrong to fire Badertscher because it failed to provide documented evidence for its claim he had a history of classroom management problems.
The school board disagreed, and fired Badertscher last year by a 4-1 vote.
After its hearing with the referee, the board listed an 11th reason for firing Badertscher, the chokehold incident, Routson wrote. The judge called that “very troubling,” and said Badertscher had the right to adequate notice of this 11th reason as part of his due process.
Routson wrote there is no doubt Badertscher was largely fired for the chokehold incident.
“The board, however, pursued the termination of Badertscher for ‘willful and persistent’ violations of numerous overlapping board policies without specifically identifying the classroom assault as a basis for dismissal,” Routson wrote.
Routson further decided the school board failed to prove those allegations, even when considering the chokehold incident as evidence.
Surveillance footage shows much of the class did not notice the incident, according to Routson. That limits the argument that a “serious physical altercation” occurred, he ruled.
Badertscher also received several awards and strong evaluations during his career, Routson wrote. He was not disciplined during his Liberty-Benton tenure for his handling of previous student outbursts, according to Routson.
The judge reversed the board’s firing and ordered back pay and benefits retroactive to July 1, 2012.
Badertscher’s attorney, John Roca of Liberty-Benton Teacher’s Association, said the case was “overkill” against his client.
Badertscher and Roca will meet with school officials to consider their options, he said.
A call seeking comment from Badertscher was not returned Wednesday.
Badertscher said in February of last year that he hoped for reinstatement with back pay.
“I thought what had happened to me was wrong, and I wasn’t going to stand for it,” he said.
Superintendent Jim Kanable said Wednesday in a statement that the board will review the case before acting.
“We are disappointed with, but certainly respect, the court’s findings on the appeal of the Mark Badertscher termination case,” he said.
The board’s next meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. July 21.