School transfers uphold

February 04, 1998


Staff Writer

Two Washington County school instructors who were transferred against their will last year are planning their next move after the Maryland State Board of Education last week affirmed the local school board's decision.

Teacher Austin Gisriel and instructional assistant Kurt Britner were transferred from North Hagerstown High School to other schools last May after school officials determined a newsletter they published disrupted the working environment.

In affirming the board's decision on Jan. 28, the state board said Britner and Gisriel were not speaking out on a matter of public concern in North Hagerstown News and Views, a newsletter they published. The publication was devoted to "employee morale and other personal grievances," the state board ruled.


Even if the publications did touch on public concerns, the board ruled that the "school system's need to promote an efficient school environment outweighed the employees' interest in publishing" the newsletter.

Britner, who was transferred to the Alternative Learning Center, said Wednesday that the ruling was hardly a shock.

"Needless to say, it didn't surprise us. We expected this," he said. "This whole thing certainly has upset me to a great degree."

Britner and Gisriel must decide whether to appeal the decision in Washington County Circuit Court or proceed with a federal lawsuit they filed on Aug. 1. That suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, had been on hold pending the state board's ruling.

Judith Bresler, an attorney who argued the case on behalf of the Washington County Board of Education, acknowledged that government employees have a right to free speech. But she said the public also has a right to a functioning government.

"When there's a clash between those two then the court does a balancing test," she said.

Although Gisriel and Britner could pursue both their federal suit and appeal the state board's decision simultaneously, their attorney said that would be unlikely.

Brett R. Wilson, of Schlossberg & Associates in Hagerstown, said the legal actions have time limits. He said he will huddle with his clients soon and choose a course of action by no later than the end of the month.

"The clock is ticking," he said.

For the instructors, who began their new teaching assignments at the start of the school year, the state board's ruling likely means several more months of uncertainty.

Gisriel, who was sent to Smithsburg High School, criticized the rationale that the newsletter did not deal with public issues. He said the concerns they raised bore a direct effect on the operations of the school.

"The board just ignored the context of those newsletters," he said.

Gisriel said the teachers, staff and students have cushioned the blow somewhat.

"I didn't know how I'd be received, but it's been a great reception," he said. "At the same time, when I pull into the parking lot each day, I know I'm here because they're trying to punish me."

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