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Bathroom controversy irks some

August 26, 2003|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

Rumors, spread by some support staff, that a private bathroom recently installed for Washington County Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan was extravagant led to a meeting to discuss employee issues, an officer of the group that represents support staff said Monday.

Educational Support Personnel Local No. 1 President Sheila Metzel said she asked to see the bathroom after hearing from some members of the support staff that it included a $6,000 toilet, a bidet and marble floors.

Support personnel were feeling the pinch of budget cuts and were concerned about the possibility that a lot of money might have been spent on the bathroom, she said.

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"Was I guilty of telling people I heard it? Yes," Metzel said. "Did I believe that it was that expensive? No."

Carol Mowen, the school system's public information officer, said the bathroom cost $700 for fixtures and about $600 for drywall, all of which were purchased at Lowe's and installed by the school system's employees.

"The total cost was under $1,500," she said.

"It was not a $6,000 toilet," Metzel said. "People around here tend to blow things out of proportion."

Metzel said her tour of the new bathroom resulted in a meeting with Morgan to discuss the issue of support personnel budget cuts.

Morgan said that when Metzel checked out the bathroom, Metzel brought to her attention some issues regarding staff about which she hadn't been aware. She said she didn't realize that when some support staff members' positions were cut to part-time, they lost their benefits.

"It's not the issue of laying off people, it's to the point where people are missing benefits and I didn't know that," Morgan said.

"We came to an agreement to help the people feeling the pinch the worst if I would go to the newspaper and squelch some of the rumors," Metzel said.

Morgan said that there was no "quid pro quo" involved in the conversation she had with Metzel.

She said, "(I asked her) if we can get these issues resolved can we dispense (with) these rumors immediately?"

Metzel said Morgan agreed to try to return some support staff to a minimum 30-hour-per-week schedule, which would allow them to retain medical benefits. Employees who work fewer than 30 hours a week are considered part time and are not eligible for benefits, she said.

Metzel said she understands school officials' budget decision to use more funds for the classroom, but said there are 850 to 900 people who support the classroom who often are overlooked by the administration during budget discussions.

Support staff includes classroom instructional assistants, secretaries, special education instructional assistants, cafeteria workers, custodians, bus drivers, carpenters, and maintenance workers, Morgan said.

Morgan said she would look at the budget to see if anything could be cut to return benefits to some support staff. New grants coming into the school system might allow for such adjustments, she said. But she said she hasn't had a chance to look at the budget or speak with the Washington County Board of Education about it.

"We would have to rob Peter to pay Paul," she said.

Metzel said she talked to a couple of people and told them to stop spreading rumors about the bathroom.

"We'll see how many of them get back to being full-time employees with benefits," she said.

Morgan said the superintendent's office at one time had a bathroom, but it was removed before she became superintendent.

She said the installation of the bathroom was included in the budget after she started working for the school system. It was installed in early August while Morgan was on vacation, she said.

"Really, the issues have to do with safety and security," she said. "For me to go down the hall to a bathroom that doesn't lock ... It puts me in an awkward position."

Metzel said she thought installation of the bathroom was bad timing, coming when some support staff members' hours and benefits had been cut.

"It added insult to injury," she said.

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