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Editorial: April 21, 2011

The issue: Ron Ortiz returning to Central Hardin
Our view:
Law protects jobs of Reservists

When announcing the posting of Ron Ortiz as principal of Brown Street Alternative Education Center, Hardin County Schools Superintendent Nanette Johnston said, “It all fit perfectly, honestly.”

Ortiz said he looked forward to working with the staff and students at Brown Street. But considering the outcome of an investigation following a federal labor department complaint,

it’s now clear that the fit wasn’t quite perfect after all, nor did Ortiz embrace the assignment.

A 27-year U.S. Army Reservist, Ortiz was recalled to active status as a lieutenant colonel in January 2010. At the time, he was serving as principal of Central Hardin High School. After his one-year assignment with the 84th Training Command was fulfilled, Ortiz was not returned to CHHS. Instead, he was placed as chief administrator of the alternative school, a position vacated by the mid-year retirement of Brown Street principal Joe Welch.

At the same time, the district expanded the duties of the Brown Street post to include responsibilities as the district’s dropout prevention administrator. That position was created to develop strategies to increase graduation rates across the district to indirectly fulfill a state education department requirement.

The decision to move Ortiz to the new post appeared to be a good one. Johnston touted his skill set as being strongly aligned with the needs of Brown Street and the dropout prevention assignment, and Ortiz seemingly was on-board with the move.

However, on Jan. 5, 2011, not long after the announcement of his new role, Ortiz filed a complaint with the Department of Labor’s Veterans Employment and Training Service division claiming the district violated his rights by moving him to Brown Street. An inquiry by the U.S. Labor Department supported his claim, determining the move failed to meet requirements of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.

The law is intended to ensure that employees who serve or have served in uniform are not disadvantaged in their civilian careers because of their service; are promptly re-employed in their civilian jobs upon return from duty; and are not discriminated against in employment based on past, present or future military service.

Re-employment in a civilian job can mean a position equivalent to the veteran’s previous job.

From our perspective, it’s disappointing to learn that the repositioning decision surrounding Ortiz’s transfer to Brown Street was in reality not quite what it was positioned to the public to be.

In public and written responses to the federal investigation into the complaint, the district’s attorney and Johnston said the repositioning wasn’t a demotion, that it was done to avoid disruptions in the middle of a school year and that it would have occurred anyway because of performance issues surrounding Ortiz at Central Hardin. Records obtained by this newspaper through a Freedom of Information Act request indicate that Oritz wasn’t fully in agreement or supportive of changes being made. Other documents cite educational deficiencies and suggestions for operational improvement following scholastic audits.
The district is justified in expecting its administrators to be on board with its strategies and tactics. It’s also important that it be able to address performance issues regarding its employees, especially those in top administrative positions. In fact, we and every parent with a child in a classroom expect that accountability.

Disappointingly, this case leaves us with the concerning impression that Johnston and the district chose to deal with those surrounding Ortiz by moving him elsewhere. That should never happen.

It’s equally disappointing to think that students of Brown Street — those whose academic success is most at-risk — weren’t given the fair shake they deserved because of the circumstances involving this decision. Students there, many of whom struggle with issues of poor self-esteem and misperceptions that they aren’t wanted, should not be taught under the direction of a leader who doesn’t want to be there.

And in a military community such as ours, the risk of not having the same or equally similar job to return to after duty to the nation has been fulfilled is the last thing reservists, guard members and their families should have to worry about.

It appears the district and Ortiz have reached a mutually satisfactory agreement with his decision to return to the CHHS principal position – and it is one that fully adheres to the employment protections afforded by USERRA. Johnston said when Ortiz returns to Central in July, he’s committed to following the course set at the high school during his active duty absence. We trust that’s the case and wish him success as he returns.

We’re also encouraged to learn through this week’s announcement that Robert King will move to Brown Street. Saying the position allows him a chance to focus his passion in helping at-risk students succeed socially, emotionally and academically, King said the kids there “need someone to believe in them.”

We couldn’t agree more.

This editorial represents a consensus of The News-Enterprise editorial board.