Board Bids Farewell to Overseas Leader

by KATE BEEM
Mike Hall could taste retirement when he got the call in November 2003: His Army National Guard unit in western New York was to be activated for service in Iraq.

Hall didn’t dream his deployment would throw more than a temporary wrench in his plan to work one more school year as a superintendent. His five-year contract was set to expire in June 2005. He would be deployed overseas for a year, but Hall assumed his last year would begin when he returned to the school district from military duty.

But the seven-member school board of the Oakfield-Alabama Central School District, located between Rochester and Buffalo, saw differently. When Hall explained he would be away from the 1,100-student district for a year, the board told him his contract would expire during his absence and advised him to retire early. And that was that, Hall says.

“I don’t like the way it ended,” he says. “It was too quick. There was no chance to say goodbye.”

And it left some wondering about the Oakfield-Alabama school board’s motives. In a time of war, flexibility by governing boards is vital, says Tom Rogers, executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. “They’re serving their country on your behalf.”

Legal Protection
Most employers are sensitive to this issue, says Major Rob Palmer of the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a group based in Arlington, Va., that works to gain support from private and public employers for members of the National Guard and Army reserves. Legally, employers are prohibited from using military deployment as a means to get rid of someone, he says.

The Uniformed Services Employer and Re-employment Rights Act requires civilian employers to rehire any employee who goes on active duty. Employers cannot discriminate based on an employee’s participation in the Guard or Reserve. And besides, Palmer says, doing so would bring about major ill will among community residents.

The law is fuzzier when it comes to employment contracts with sunset dates, Palmer says. Employers aren’t necessarily required to extend contracts that would expire during deployment, just as they’re not bound to guarantee jobs to employees whose positions are legitimately eliminated while they’re gone.

But still, doing away with the job of someone who’s deployed is “bad PR for an employer,” Palmer says.

Much misunderstanding exists about the rights of employees who are deployed by the military, Palmer says. The law wasn’t seriously tested until after the 1991 Gulf War when some soldiers with the Guard and reserves returning from the Middle East encountered problems with their employers.

As U.S. military mobilizations have escalated, workplace complaints have increased, although they are tapering off as the war in Iraq continues. In 2004, the agency opened 6,000 cases stemming from problems in the workplace, Palmer says.

About 6 percent of Guard and reserve members work in education, representing the fourth-largest sector, Palmer says, adding that there’s no evidence that re-employment rights issues involving educators are any more common than private sector workplace disputes.

One Board’s View
Bonnie Woodward, an Oakfield-Alabama school board member who served at the time Hall was forced into retirement, remembers that board members were somewhat surprised at the superintendent’s willingness, at the age of 56, to go to war. The board knew Hall had been considering retirement, and the timing of his deployment abroad gelled with the school board’s plans for a change in the district’s top leadership.

“He actually did us a large favor,” Woodward says.

Still Woodward says she realizes Hall, who served as the district’s superintendent for 13 years, was expecting board members to put up more resistance when he told them of his military assignment, that perhaps he was hoping the board would ask him not to leave. Woodward says she tried to talk Hall out of retiring early. “But he was adamant about it at the time,” she says.

In the long run, things have worked out, says Hall, who no longer lives in the school district. Financially, an early retirement was a positive development because he made up for the loss in income with his salary from flying Apache helicopters for the Army at the Balad Airbase in northern Iraq. But emotionally, leaving his 30-year career in public education so abruptly and on others’ terms still stings.

Since returning from the war back in February, Hall has had more time to consider how things went down with his superintendency. And he keeps coming back to the same conclusion: “It was too quick,” he says again and again.