War critic tries to block military leave for school principal
But up-Island school committee rejects Marshall Segall's position
Political debate over the war in Iraq flared in a meeting of the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) committee meeting Monday night. What started out as a formality, to grant West Tisbury School principal Michael Halt his military leave request, turned into a lengthy, passionate protest against the war in Iraq by school committee member Marshall Segall.
Challenging Mr. Weiss's request to the Up-Island school committee to approve Mr. Halt's military leave, Mr. Segall questioned whether the school committee was required to take action or if it was a foregone conclusion it would be granted. "I would prefer it if I didn't have to vote," he said. "I see my voting to send Michael to Iraq as an act of conscience. I cannot do it."
Mr. Segall expressed his political views concerning the war against the backdrop of a hastily called meeting required by Mr. Halt's mobilization to active duty service as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve next week.
Superintendent of schools James Weiss met with UIRSD chairman Roxanne Ackerman, and members Susan Parker and Mr. Segall, following the regional high school committee's meeting at 9 pm Monday. The other two school committee members, Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter and Dan Cabot, were out of town.
Mr. Weiss told the group that he had received a letter from the commander of the Naval Construction Battalion explaining that the mobilization of Mr. Halt's reserve unit, the 7th Naval Construction Regiment, would require his posting to California for about six months, followed by a tour of duty in Iraq, for a total of 12 to 24 months.
In addition to the school committee approving Mr. Halt's official military leave request, Mr. Weiss said Federal law obligated them to offer him the same or similar job when he returns. Ms. Parker immediately made a motion to grant Mr. Halt military leave "with our blessing."
Mr. Segall, newly elected to the school committee in November, took exception to her motion. "It goes without saying that Michael has my best wishes and everybody's. It doesn't go without saying that I have great personal angst over the situation we are in. We are in effect participating in a decision that has to do as much with the state of our nation as it does our local community and school."
Mr. Segall said because there is no draft and Mr. Halt serves as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, he views him as "...a volunteer in a foreign policy decision I don't believe in," and that Mr. Halt's choice to remain a military reservist indicated his support of that policy.
"Does it put the onus on any of us to support, bless or validate the situation?" Mr. Segall asked, and then apologized for his reaction to everyone present, including assistant principal Bob Lane and kindergarten teacher's assistant Victoria Phillips from West Tisbury School, assistant to the superintendent for business affairs Amy Tierney, and school committee secretary Marni Lipke.
Referring to a copy of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, Mr. Weiss explained that Mr. Halt's time of service is protected under Federal law.
"Technically, he is going off for active duty. The law says you will hold his job, and you have no choice," Mr. Weiss told Mr. Segall. Ms. Ackerman said that although she was sorry Mr. Halt had to go away, she also had reservations about Ms. Parker's motion.
"I'm recommending you take the action - grant him the military leave he has requested," Mr. Weiss urged the school committee members. Offering a compromise, Mr. Weiss suggested amending the motion to say that the committee would abide by the U.S. Code through a documented action guaranteeing Mr. Halt a job when he returns.
Mr. Segall agreed with the new wording and made a separate motion to wish Mr. Halt well and to convey the sense of the UIRSD committee that "we want Michael to understand he has our best wishes and our hopes for a speedy return."
With that hurdle crossed, Mr. Weiss asked the committee to consider approving Chapter 77 of the State Act of 2005 in Massachusetts, which offers public employees the difference between their base salary and their base military pay, so that they will not suffer financial loss while fulfilling their service obligation.
Ms. Ackerman, expressing her surprise, said she had no idea there might be a financial obligation for Mr. Halt while he was gone. Mr. Segall again voiced his dissent.
"We face in West Tisbury a possible negative recommendation from the West Tisbury finance committee about our budget, which we've approved," he said, alluding to talk he heard around town that perhaps the school committee would save money in Mr. Halt's absence by combining administrators at West Tisbury and Chilmark schools. Although the pay difference would probably not amount to much, Mr. Segall said, he suggested waiting to see how much Mr. Halt's interim replacement would cost.
"I view this as separate - I can't even imagine not supporting this state statute," said Ms. Parker, bristling at Mr. Segall's suggestion. "Our ultimate job is to do what's best for the children and for their education. Any attempt to please the taxpayer in not granting Michael this pay difference would be unconscionable."
Mr. Weiss calculated that on a monthly basis, Mr. Halt's base pay as principal of $8,203 minus his military pay of $6,818 amounts to a difference of $1,385, totaling $16,620 for 12 months.
Concluding that, "Not only is it the right thing to do, but it also is not a very expensive thing to do," Mr. Segall joined in the committee's unanimous vote to approve Ms. Parker's motion to accept the terms of Chapter 77.
The evening's final discussion focused on arrangements for Mr. Halt's temporary replacement. Mr. Weiss said his initial thought was to appoint Chilmark School Principal Diane Gandy as the supervising principal for both up-Island schools and to appoint an assistant principal at Chilmark School, with Bob Lane continuing as West Tisbury School's assistant principal.
However, Mr. Weiss said due to reasons he would only discuss in executive session, consolidation under Ms. Gandy's supervision would not be an option. The second option, Mr. Weiss said, was to seek a retired principal to work with Mr. Lane part-time at West Tisbury School until June 30.
The committee went into executive session for about 10 minutes and then reconvened in public session. Mr. Weiss told the committee he had some retired Island administrators in mind as candidates, and that he hoped to select someone by late Tuesday after working out the details.
Yesterday Mr. Weiss named retired Edgartown School principal Ed Jerome as the acting principal at West Tisbury School.