The Warren County School District's request to throw out a three-year lawsuit by an employee seeking reimbursement for tuition has been denied by Judge Maureen Skerda, who cited unclear wording in the district's Administration Compensation Plan in her decision.
Skerda denied the motion in a five-page order on Monday, allowing WCSD employee Patricia Horner to continue to seek reimbursement tuition for a doctoral program in Organizational Learning and Leadership at Gannon University.
"Mrs. Horner is very pleased with this outcome and we believe it will reflect the ultimate decision in this case," Gery Nietupski, Horner's attorney, said.
According to court documents, Horner applied for tuition reimbursement in June 2008 and received written approval from her supervisor and then-Superintendent Dr. Robert Terrill. The request was denied the following month during the Athletics and Co-Curricular Activities Committee meeting and then school board member Dr. Martin noted that Horner already had administrative certification and questioned how the district would benefit by "honoring this request."
At the time of Horner's request the school board had a list of unique needs in the district, and "Neither party disputes that the program Plaintiff sought tuition reimbursement for was not included in that list," Skerda wrote in her opinion.
Nietupski filed a civil complaint on June 24, 2009 on behalf of Horner, who at the time was the assistant principal at Warren Area High School, claiming the school district discriminated against her and practiced "unfair labor practices" by refusing to reimburse her for time spent at Gannon University to earn a doctoral degree
The WCSD said as the defendant that Horner's request did not meet any of the listed unique needs and the committee was acting within its rights to deny the request.
In her written motion, Skerda said the lawsuit revolves around the Administrator Compensation Plan, and "what the terms of this particular ACP provide to administrators regarding tuition reimbursement."
The WCSD claims the ACP is subject to one interpretation and Horner claims the interpretation is not clearly identified; Horner also claims the ACP is subject to one interpretation and the WCSD is not clearly identified under the language of the plan.
"However...the Court cannot say that Defendant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the Plan does contain ambiguities," Skerda said.
The ACP does state written approval of reimbursement must be acquired from the superintendent and the unique or new needs of the WCSD will fall under the responsibility of the personnel committee, but the plan doesn't state the committee will accept or deny tuition reimbursement requests, Skerda said.
"The Plan could be interpreted by a reasonable person to state that both the Superintendent and the Committee shall approve the request. The Plan could also be interpreted to state that while the Committee determines what are unique needs of the District, the Superintendent is the only approval that must be sought by an administrator. The Plan language states that the Committee will determine the unique needs, but it is ambiguous regarding who is to approve or disapprove the actual request for tuition reimbursement," Skerda said.
Neal Devlin, representation for the school district, and Nietupski are scheduled to meet with Skerda on Thursday, June 7.
Devlin was not available for comment on Friday.