by Brian Bowling - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Two male teachers in the Steel Valley School District filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Thursday, claiming the district hired them at a lower salary than female teachers with similar experience.

The lawsuit says school officials told Clay Karadus of Munhall and Steven A. Large of Elizabeth Township that the district’s policy is to hire teachers at the bottom rung of the pay scale.

Karadus, an English teacher, had seven years of experience when he was hired in 2004. Large, an elementary school teacher, had five years of experience when he was hired in 2002, the lawsuit says.

“Despite its alleged policy, defendant hired other similarly situated teachers who are female at higher pay steps,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit doesn’t cite specific examples.

Donald Fetzko, the school board’s attorney, said the district denies the teachers’ allegations.

“They cherry-picked someone who was in Steel Valley for a long time, left for a year, came back, and got her seniority back,” he said.

Karadus and Large are seeking promotions to higher pay levels, back pay and punitive damages.

U.S. Judge berates Steel Valley board in bias case
October 06, 2010
by Paula Reed Ward – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Members of the Steel Valley school board were admonished in federal court Tuesday when a judge questioned how a settlement in a gender discrimination lawsuit reached last summer was now back on her docket.

The school board voted last week against settling the case in which two male teachers alleged they were hired at the entry-level salary scale, even though both had several years of teaching experience and other district teachers in similar situations began at higher pay steps.

After seven hours in court on Tuesday — including several in which U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer took a hands-on approach in negotiating with board members — the parties agreed to settle the case.

The board has scheduled a special meeting to approve the settlement for next Tuesday at 6 p.m.

Until it is publicly approved, the terms of the agreement are confidential.

Clay Karadus, who was hired in 2004 as an English teacher, and Steven A. Large, who was hired in 2002 as an elementary education teacher, filed the lawsuit on Feb. 11.

Mr. Karadus had seven years teaching experience when he was hired; Mr. Large had five. Both men were hired at Step 1 of the salary scale, stating in the lawsuit that they were told it was the district’s policy to hire teachers at the bottom level.

“Despite its alleged policy, defendant hired other similarly situated teachers who are female at higher pay steps,” the lawsuit said.

The men were seeking tens of thousands of dollars in back pay, damages, as well as attorneys fees and costs.

During a contentious hearing Tuesday in which Judge Fischer repeatedly took the board members and their counsel to task for how the settlement negotiations and subsequent vote to reject the deal were handled, it became clear that the judge wanted the case to be disposed of.

She met with the board members, school solicitor Don Fetzko and the insurance company representative privately for nearly an hour.

“We were constantly told [by the judge] about the cost to be incurred by us if we were to lose,” said school board member Mike Terrick. “We were told we would be required to be at every proceeding and we would not be reimbursed for any of our time.

“When you’re faced with those kinds of considerations, I can understand why a board member would say, ‘I want to settle.’ ”

Mr. Terrick said that Judge Fischer also told the board members that there was a chance they could be held personally liable for some of the potential costs in the case if the plaintiffs were able to prove the district negotiated in bad faith.

The plaintiffs and school district had settled the suit during a mediation hearing July 1. Although no school board members attended, by the end of the day, Susan Roberts attorney for the Steel Valley School District, hired by the district’s insurance carrier, and the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Colleen Ramage Johnston, thought they were done.

“We were assured the necessary parties were there for the defendants and that any settlement reached that day would be approved by the school board,” Ms. Johnston said.

It wasn’t until Sept. 28, the day after the board voted 6 to 1 against the settlement, that the plaintiffs learned the deal had fallen through.

The plaintiffs planned, this week, to file a motion against the school district alleging bad faith during the dispute resolution process.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Judge Fischer went over the potential attorney fees the district might be liable for if it lost the case — $25,000 for depositions, $35,000 for a motion for summary judgment, up to $90,000 for trial, and more than $175,000 for other motions and briefs.

Because of the delay in the case caused by the settlement being rescinded, Judge Fischer told the school district that it was required to pay Mr. Large and Mr. Karadus for the day of work they would miss to give depositions.

At that, Steel Valley Superintendent William H. Kinavey shot up from his seat in the gallery to address the judge.

In what amounted to a speech shouted at Judge Fischer, Dr. Kinavey said that his district was financially strapped and that he would not pay for a day of missed work.

“We’re not Peters Township. We’re not Elizabeth Forward,” he said. “This would destroy our district. I have $18,000 in the fund balance. This case will end up destroying the district, and you want me to pay these people? They can use their personal days.”

At one point, during his comments, Judge Fischer interrupted Dr. Kinavey to say that she grew up in the area and recognized the district was financially distressed.

He challenged her to answer where she was raised, to which the judge answered, Homestead and West Mifflin, before her father was able to build his family a home in Peters Township.

When Dr. Kinavey had finished, Judge Fischer responded:

“You may have been well-served to strongly consider settlement. Your school district may be looking at attorney fees, costs and then some. … All, by the way, at taxpayer dollars.

“If you weren’t told these were the consequences all along, shame on counsel.”

Despite the court’s admonishment, Mr. Terrick believes the district could have won the lawsuit because the teachers who were hired at the increased pay levels were brought on based on merit, not simply years of experience.

“We were protecting the taxpayers’ interest and the quality of education by bringing more experienced teachers in,” he said.

More than that, Mr. Terrick believes the settlement could have serious ramifications for districts across Pennsylvania.

“Any district that embarked on some merit-based negotiations up front should now be put on notice,” he said. “What it boils down to — when you’re offered a job, if you don’t like the salary, you can either negotiate more or walk away.”

February 12, 2010

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Steel Valley school board settles gender suit

October 14, 2010
by Mary Niederberger, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Steel Valley school board at a special meeting Tuesday approved a $170,000 settlement with two male teachers who brought a gender discrimination lawsuit against the district, but school officials are uncertain where they will come up with the district’s $124,000 portion of the costs.

District solicitor Donald Fetzko said the district’s insurance carrier is covering about $46,000 of the settlement and the district is responsible for the rest.

Superintendent William Kinavey told a federal judge last week that the district has just $18,000 in its reserve fund and can’t afford the settlement. Mr. Fetzko said the funds will have to come from the district’s general fund budget, which is already allocated toward running the schools and educational programs.

The board and administrators will have to look for places to make cuts in the budget in order to pay its portion of the settlement, the solicitor said.

“If $124,000 is spent on the settlement, it’s not going to be spent somewhere else,” Mr. Fetzko said.

He said the agreement allows for the total to be paid in installments over nine months. The district already paid a $10,000 deductible to its insurance carrier as its portion of $35,000 in attorney fees.

Mr. Fetzko said Steel Valley’s payment pales in comparison to a $1.3 million jury verdict handed to the Elizabeth Forward School District in a similar case brought by the same attorney, Colleen Ramage Johnston, in 2008. He said Ms. Johnston has a similar case pending in federal court against the Peters Township School District.

In the Steel Valley case, teachers Clay Karadus and Steven Large filed suit in U.S. District Court in February claiming they were hired at the entry-level scale even though they had several years of teaching experience and that other female teachers in similar situations started at higher pay steps.

Mr. Karadus had seven years’ teaching experience when he was hired, Mr. Large had five years. Both were hired at Step 1 of the salary scale, stating in the lawsuit that they were told it was the district’s policy to hire teachers at the bottom level.

School directors denied that there was any gender discrimination in hiring or pay scales. School director Michael Terrick said some teachers were paid more for their areas of expertise.

School directors made it clear they did not want to approve the settlement but felt they had no choice after a seven-hour meeting on Oct. 5 with U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer. Judge Fischer ordered the board to appear before her after it voted in September to reject the settlement negotiated by Susan Roberts, the attorney hired by the district’s insurance carrier.

During the meeting, the judge warned school directors of the costs they could incur if they took the case to court and lost, including $25,000 for depositions, $35,000 for a motion for summary judgement, up to $90,000 for a trial and more than $175,000 for other motions and briefs.

In addition, according to Mr. Terrick, the judge told board members they would have to take time away from their jobs to be present at every proceeding.

Seven members of the school board voted in favor of the settlement, though they made it clear they believe district administrators did nothing wrong in the way they hired teachers. Mr. Terrick voted against the settlement and school director Donald Bajus, who participated by phone, abstained.

Board President Beth Cannon read a prepared statement after the vote stressing that the approval, which she termed “difficult and painstaking,” was in no way an admission of guilt by the district, but simply a financial decision.

“With this already financially strapped district, this decision to settle was based on the fact that our district could not financially withstand a trial,” Mrs. Cannon said. She noted that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission dismissed the claim in June.

Resident Donna Dreshman asked the board how many other teachers could file claims against the district for not being paid for the experience they had before coming to the district. Mr. Fetkzo said there is no way to tell since there is no statute of limitations on the claims.

School director Joe Ducar, who serves as the district’s liaison with wealthy benefactor and alumnus William Campbell, said he plans to meet with the district’s teachers and remind them of the $20 million in contributions that Mr. Campbell, chairman of Intuit Inc., has made to the district to provide state-of-the art equipment, services and facilities for staff and students to use and ask them to please refrain from filing any more lawsuits.

Among Mr. Campbell’s contributions is $4 million for a 17,000-square-foot addition to Barrett Elementary School in Homestead.

“I hope that the teachers sit back and look at that and take that into consideration,” Mr. Ducar said.