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Cochise College's teacher firing raises question: Who guards against administrative abuse?

Cochise College administrators refuse to discuss why they fired a popular ceramics instructor, in spite of more than 30 students who protested their decision.

Cochise College's teacher firing raises question: Who guards against administrative abuse?

CREATED May 23, 2012

Reporter: Claire Doan
 
SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. (KGUN9-TV) – If your bosses get mad at you and want to fire you, what can you do about it?  In many private companies, you can appeal to an HR department.  Most government workers have civil service protections.   But if you’re a probationary teacher at Cochise College, the governing board is your only hope for appeal.  Are these watchdogs awake?  The answer to that question is: apparently not.  In the wake of a recent case the board refused to even discuss a controversial firing, and later told KGUN9 News it’s just not their job to second-guess administrators.

But if they’re not watching, then who is?

Cochise College canned 48-year-old ceramics instructor Clara Lanyi, in spite of her love of teaching and her popularity among students. 9 On Your Side requested an interview, but the college refuses to discuss the issue. Because Lanyi was a new teacher on a two-year probation, administrators did not have to warn Lanyi or explain their reasons before making the decision to terminate her.  All they had to do was to inform her of their decision.
 
“Where does the buck stop? Somebody has to be responsible,” Lanyi told 9 On Your Side.

That “somebody” consists of the five elected members of the Cochise College Governing Board, which must approve all terminations.  The proposal to fire Lanyi “without cause” prompted a flood of outraged letters to the board and to administrators.  On the night Lanyi’s case came before the board, a dozen students spoke in protest.  But if anyone on the board listened to any of those comments, there is no evidence of it.  The board voted without any discussion whatsoever to approve the administrators’ recommendation not to renew Lanyi’s teaching contract.
 
“Thirty of us took time out of our spring break, some driving two hours or more to Douglas to sit at a board meeting where we were treated very poorly,” said Rachel Slawson, a student of Lanyi’s. “They never thanked or acknowledge anything we said.”
 
Only board members can know what they were thinking, but the facts they had in hand to think about are on the record.  Before the meeting, board members received a packet of information that included:  a memo with general reasons for the non-renewal of Lanyi’s teaching contract; Provost Verlyn Fick’s summary of what was possibly a fraudulent petition against Lanyi; a positive classroom evaluation of Lanyi; and thirty letters from students pleading that the college allow her to keep her job.

Despite the strong support and the marked absence of negative facts, the board sacked Lanyi without a word.  9 On Your Side wanted to know:  What happened to tip the scale against Lanyi?

Phone calls from 9 On Your Side went unreturned, and only two emails elicited a response -- and one of those emails was simply to inform KGUN9 News that there would be no response.  Board member Jane Strain wrote, “I do not give interviews regarding college personnel actions.”
 
Slightly more explanation came from board member David DiPeso, who wrote:   “We have a very good staff that makes these recommendations and they do not take these issues lightly. The board normally follows their recommendations on these issues.”
 
But if the board is simply rubberstamping the decisions of college administrators, why is the board even needed?  Is it doing its job?

The board’s own policy requires a more hands-on approach.  That policy, as posted on the Cochise College website, requires the Governing Board is to “serve as the official governance link between Cochise College and the community,” “direct the college through the establishment of policies”; and to “monitor college performance.”
 
Lanyi insists there was no monitoring in her case. She feels the board had its fingers in its ears, and did not listen to those who spoke out in her favor.  “It took a lot of guts for them to stand up and speak their mind. They thought their opinions mattered and I thought their opinions mattered, but they were shown very clearly that Cochise does not care about its students’ opinions.”

If the board is not interested in monitoring the personnel decisions of its administrators, what recourse do teachers like Lanyi have when they bump noses with bosses?

Therein lies the rub.  If the board chooses to look the other way, the employee is flat out of luck.  And that’s the way state government wants it, regardless of the potential for abuse.

KGUN9 News asked labor attorney Mary Judge Ryan, who’s not affiliated with this case.
 
“I’m not aware of a public employer that does not have a probationary period – and this is why. It gives the employer a lot of leeway when they initially hire to terminate, to get rid of you if they don’t think it’s working,” Ryan explained. 
 
Ryan said that in an at-will state, public employers get a lot of power, while employees get stuck with little leverage, unless they’re fired for an illegal reason like discrimination.
 
Ryan calls that an imbalance of power.  “What they say is that for the flip side, an employee can quit at any time. It doesn’t seem to be quite equal if you’re looking at it from an employee’s point of view,” Ryan said. “I don’t think it’s good policy. I honestly believe we should be protecting our employees.”

As for Lanyi, she’s feeling anything but protected, and is left to wonder what she did, and what toes she might have stepped on, to cost her a job that she’d held for two years.

If Cochise College’s elected governing board won’t explain itself to 9 On Your Side, perhaps it will be more responsive to voters. 

Contact information is presented below.
 
-         Mrs. Jan Guy (Chair) – guyjan@cochise.edu
-         Mrs. Jane Strain – jane@cochise.edu
-         Mr. John Hudgins – hudgins@cochise.edu
-         Mr. David DiPeso – david.dipeso@cochise.edu
-         Dr. John Eaton – jandmetn@cochise.edu
 
You can also reach them at (520)515–5401.