Board signs papers to fire Cook after resignation deal collapses

April 21, 1995|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Sun Staff Writer

An eleventh-hour deal to trade a letter of resignation for a clean personnel record collapsed late Wednesday when the Anne Arundel County school board signed papers to fire teacher Laurie S. Cook.

The board voted to fire Ms. Cook a month ago, but did not sign the formal opinion to dismiss the teacher from her $41,078 job until Wednesday night.

M. Cristina Gutierrez and Susan Russell, Ms. Cook's lawyers, claimed foul yesterday when they received a copy of the signed opinion.

"I'm outraged, I feel like we'd been set up," said Ms. Gutierrez. "We're going to appeal to the state Board of Education." She said school board President Michael A. Pace "proposed discussions about settling this matter 10 days ago" through board attorney P. Tyson Bennett, then called her himself.

Mr. Pace confirmed that Mr. Bennett, the board's lawyer, and Ms. Russell had "sporadic" discussions about a settlement.

Mr. Pace said Mr. Bennett "was not speaking on behalf of the board, because the issue of any kind of settlement had never reached the board. But it's hardly unusual in any type of litigation or dispute for counsel to have discussions at points along the way regarding potential settlement."

Mr. Pace said he spoke with Ms. Gutierrez Wednesday, but said it "became very plain . . . their views were entirely inconsistent with mine."

Ms. Gutierrez said the terms of the proposed settlement were clear: Ms. Cook would resign at some future date if the board rescinded its vote to fire her and reinstated her.

"This case has already taken two years out of Ms. Cook's life, and we cannot guarantee that continued litigation wouldn't take another two years," Ms. Gutierrez said. "But it is a deal we never would have acknowledged was even on the table if we did not have the assurance that the board would rescind its vote. They came to us, we didn't go to them."

Ms. Cook, a science teacher, was accused of having sex with a male student in May 1993. A jury acquitted her of child abuse in December 1993. In July 1994, Superintendent Carol S. Parham recommended Ms. Cook be fired, alleging the teacher had a sexual relationship with a male student. Dr. Parham also accused Ms. Cook of covering up a Northeast teacher's affair with a student.

The school system's hearing on these charges ended earlier this year when a hearing examiner ruled that the accusations were unsubstantiated. The board, however, voted 5-2 to fire Ms. Cook, saying the hearing examiner's opinion was "plain wrong."

Ms. Gutierrez has said the vote was illegal because board member Thomas E. Florestano participated, even though he did not hear closing arguments. A hearing examiner who listened to testimony also recommended that Dr. Florestano not vote.

The case was further complicated by a news report that aired March 16 on WBAL-TV. It showed videotape of board members leaving a closed session the day before they voted to fire Ms. Cook. "I'm not voting," Dr. Florestano told a WBAL reporter. "Yes, he is," Mr. Pace said.

Without Dr. Florestano's vote, Ms. Gutierrez said, the board wouldn't have had the five votes necessary to fire Ms. Cook. Mr. Pace said Dr. Florestano was eligible because he had read transcripts of the proceedings. As for the WBAL report, Mr. Pace said board members were "intentionally kidding the reporters there to avoid getting into any substantive discussions."

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