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Teacher canned for ‘bonus point abuse’

Principal Jamie Preston couldn’t figure out what the deal was when a new DVD player was delivered to her middle school in Garland County, Arkansas.

When Preston learned that one of her teachers had ordered it, and that it was only the first installment of an order that included two 27-inch TVs and a microwave, the alarm bells started ringing.

The end of Fan Timpani’s employment with the Lakeside School District began on Dec. 4, 2007. It was on that day that a DVD player that she had ordered under the Scholastic Book Club bonus point program was delivered to the district’s middle school.

Timpani, a sixth-grade teacher with 20 years in the district, had an account with the book club through which she ordered books and supplies for her classroom. With each purchase, Timpani accrued bonus points which she could redeem to receive items from the club’s “Classroom Bonus Catalog.”

Ostensibly, the items from the catalog are intended help create a “state-of-the-art learning environment” in the teacher’s classroom. But the crafty marketers at the Scholastic Book Club, in addition to allowing the redemption of bonus points for instructional aids like flip cards and letter vests, also offer items that might entice a teacher on a more personal level.

For example, a teacher can snag a new iPad for 36,000 bonus points. For a mere 14,100 bonus points, a teacher can get a Toshiba camcorder.

Timpani was all in on getting nifty stuff for herself under the bonus point program. According to court records, she had previously purchased two cameras, one for her daughter. And a fax confirmation relating to the DVD player delivered to the Lakeside Middle School on Dec. 4, 2007, informed Principal Preston that Timpani had two TVs and a microwave also on the way.

Timpani was more than happy to see her new DVD player arrive. When Preston brought the item to Timpani’s classroom, the teacher was actually thankful, saying matter-of-factly, “Oh, you brought my stuff down.”

But Preston wasn’t there to make a delivery. The principal wanted to know what the “instructional purpose” was for the items that Timpani had ordered.

According to Preston, Timpani freely admitted that the TVs and DVD player were for personal use and that they were purchased using Timpani’s bonus points from the Scholastic Book Club. Timpani was unapologetic and saw no problem with what she had done.

Of course, there was one BIG problem with Timpani’s use of bonus points to acquire goodies for herself. While Timpani used some of her own money in purchasing books from the Scholastic Book Club, the bulk of the money came from students, the school district and the state. So the bonus points rightly should have been redeemed for classroom aids.

When Preston pointed this out, Timpani allegedly blew a gasket, saying that school officials were “full of crap” for trying to tell her what she could do with her bonus points. In defending her bonus point rights, Timpani offered the rather compelling argument that “this school sucks.”

While such a response wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow had it come from one of Timpani’s sixth graders, it didn’t sit well when coming from a teacher. When Timpani refused to cancel her order for electronic toys, the school district proceeded to set in motion the process for terminating her for violating rules prohibiting the use of school resources for personal gain.

Of course, the self-righteous Timpani challenged her termination in court.

This month, the Arkansas Court of Appeals placed its stamp of approval on Timpani’s firing, rejecting her feeble argument that there was no rule specifically addressing a district employee’s misuse of bonus points.

The court said that Timpani’s contention that the school district was required to include a written policy about such a “minor” topic as bonus points was “not persuasive.”

The court explained that it is “not feasible to include a rule for every issue that might present itself during a teacher’s term of employment. [The school district] presented evidence that the other teachers understood that school policy prohibited the use of bonus points (which they could spend like real money with the book club) for the teachers’ personal use.” (Timpani v. Lakeside School District

Besides, the court found other grounds for Timpani’s termination, noting that the district’s superintendant “also determined that she had argued with the principal when instructed about the bonus-points policy; used loud, intemperate language to the principal in the presence of others; was untruthful about what had happened; accused the principal of lying; and was rude, disrespectful, and argumentative in the meeting with him and the principal.”

As a teacher, Timpani should know all about lessons. And this was a hard one.

But perhaps her students are better off. It speaks volumes about a teacher’s moral compass when a work rule is required for her to understand that it is wrong to reap a personal benefit from funds provided by her students, let alone funds provided by the taxpayer.

– Pat Murphy

patrick.murphy@lawyersusaonline.com

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