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Two who criticized school transferred

June 18, 1997

By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

Staff Writer

Two North Hagerstown High School instructors have retained a Hagerstown attorney to look into whether school board officials violated their First Amendment rights by transferring them to other schools against their will.

Teacher Austin Gisriel and instructional assistant Kurt Britner - two of five North High staffers who began publishing a critical newsletter last fall - said Wednesday that they believe speaking out for the good of their school cost them their long-time positions.

School system officials, while not commenting on the specific cases, said they wouldn't violate any laws to transfer employees "to meet the needs of the system," as allowed under state law.

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Both transfers, approved the Washington County Board of Education at its May 13 meeting, would take effect at the start of the 1997-98 school year.

But Gisriel and Britner are hoping that their attorney, Brett R. Wilson of Schlossberg & Associates, will be able to successfully appeal the decisions.

Both Gisriel and Britner believe the transfer decisions were prompted by pressure from parents upset by the newsletter "North High News & Views," in which they aired disagreements with administrative actions.

"I think they see Kurt and myself as the main force behind that newsletter," said Gisriel, 40, who has spent 12 of his 13 years teaching at North High.

The newsletter, published semi-regularly since September, was born out of concerns that North High's severely emotionally disabled (S.E.D.) program was being hurt by the decision to start contracting out instructional assistant services, Britner said.

"I saw the program falling apart again," said Britner, 44, who had spent 12 years as an instructional assistant in the program before being reassigned when the contracting began.

Following an administrative hearing earlier this year, the school board ruled that administrators had not proven the practice "educationally sound," according to the board's Findings of Fact.

Thirty-five days after he was returned to the S.E.D. program, Britner said he received his letter of transfer from Schools Superintendent Wayne F. Gersen.

In the letter, Gersen stated Britner was being transferred to the Alternative Learning Center "to facilitate an adjustment in the interrelationships within the staff and administration of the school."

Gisriel also received a letter of transfer from Gersen, who stated that he was being transferred to Smithsburg High School "in an effort to reduce the level of tension in the school community at North Hagerstown High School."

Neither Gersen nor Interim Superintendent Linda Barkdoll would discuss the reasons for the transfers.

"With all personnel issues, we don't make public disclosures as to why we make the decisions," Gersen said.

Involuntary transfers, not at all unusual, are made for a whole host of reasons ranging from job elimination or population shifts to the kinds of reasons cited for Gisriel and Britner, he said.

No transfers would be made if they were violating a law, Gersen said.

Dozens of people - including state delegate Joanne C. Benson, D-Prince George's, fellow faculty members and parents - have asked the board to overturn the transfers during recent board meetings.

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