WEST BRANCH, Mich. – The Michigan Education Association is going to arbitration to try to force the West Branch-Rose City school district to pay a former teacher who was convicted of molesting a student a $10,000 severance buyout.
The father of the victim is outraged, calling the union’s efforts on behalf of the sex criminal “ludicrous” and saying any school money due to the teacher should go to his son, who is “out there trying to make it in this world all messed up.”
Neal Erickson, a former math teacher at Rose City Middle School, was convicted this summer of raping a young student over three years, from 2006 to 2009, and sentenced to 15-30 years in prison.
The case sparked community outrage when several of the district’s teachers wrote letters of support for Erickson, pleading for a lenient sentence. A school board member, Mike Eagan, also drew the public’s ire when he sat with the Erickson family at the pedophile’s sentencing.
The community rallied by the victim’s parents, John and Lori Janczewski, to urge the school board to terminate Erickson’s supporters, but officials ultimately decided to keep the teachers out of fear of legal retaliation.
Erickson pleaded guilty of first-degree sexual misconduct with a minor May 8.
Erickson was placed on paid administrative leave when state police launched an investigation in October 2012. Erickson was arrested and charged with criminal sexual conduct in December 2012.
On March 26, 2013 WB-RC officials offered a $10,000 buyout for any qualifying teacher who left the school district that year, an incentive superintendent Dan Cwayna said the district had used in the past to encourage needed staff reductions.
While it’s not clear when Erickson’s employment was terminated, the union’s action suggests he was still on the payroll when the buyout was offered and accepted it.
The school district declined to pay him the money, prompting the union’s action.
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“You had to qualify for the buyout, depending on your years in the district,” Cwayna said. “We’ve done it in the past. It was a little different this last year in that we offered the buyout in two $5,000 payments.
“When the first payment was sent out … and the union discovered we did not make the payment to Mr. Erickson, they filed a grievance on his behalf.”
Cwayna said he was the one who decided not to authorize the special severance for the child molester, but declined to elaborate on why, though the reason seems pretty obvious.
“That was something I as superintendent, with some consultation with the president of the board,” decided, Cwayna said. “That was a decision the superintendent makes and at this point … I prefer not to get into the reasons.”
MEA UniServ Director Ron Parkinson acknowledged that the union is taking the case to arbitration on behalf of Erickson, but declined to discuss the case further.
“We don’t make a practice of discussing any case. It’s based on contractual compliance, and that’s really all I can say,” Parkinson told EAGnews Friday. “We filed for arbitration today.”
The union’s silence is understandable. There is no morally justifiable reason for pursuing public tax dollars for a teacher who committed one of the most heinous crimes against the public trust.
Cwayna wouldn’t discuss whether he expected the union to fight his decision, or his thoughts on the union grievance, which was filed Oct. 8.
“I don’t put a value judgment on a grievance,” he said.
The union’s decision to file for arbitration in the case is step two in the resolution process. Regardless of what the arbitrator decides, both the school district and the union have the right to appeal it through the court system.
Victim’s family vows to continue fight
John Janczewski, father of Erickson’s victim, said his family can hardly believe the MEA is pursuing the special severance for a convicted child molester.
“It’s completely ludicrous!” Janczewski told EAGnews. “Are they nuts in the head? How can the union file a grievance and back a child molester? We’re very upset about it.”
Janczewski wasn’t surprised Parkinson didn’t want to discuss the severance grievance.
“What are you going to say when you’re backing a child molester? I mean, this starts it all over again. It just sickens us,” he said. “If anything, that money should go to my son, who is out there trying to make it in this world all messed up.”
The Janczewskis and their supporters have spent the last several months collecting signatures for a ballot proposal to recall school board member Mike Eagan, who sat with Erickson’s family at his sentencing this summer. Janczewski said he’s confident they’ll collect enough signatures to put the recall on the ballot next year.
“The recall is really going good,” he said. “I’m not exact on the total (number of signatures) yet, because we have so many papers out there. I expect to hit our total in the next three weeks.”
Janczewski said he’s now committed to doing anything he can to prevent Erickson from receiving the special severance.
“We as a family in no way is going to let this happen. I mean, a child molester paid to molest a student?” Janczewski said. “He doesn’t deserve it.”
“I don’t think the union wants the publicity we’ll bring on this,” he added.