Former teacher Charlene Schmitz is behind bars in a federal detention center in Tallahassee, Florida, serving 10 years for using texts and instant messages to seduce a 14-year-old student.
She has been fired from her job as a reading teacher at the high school in Leroy, Alabama. But she is still collecting a paycheck. Schmitz is appealing her federal conviction — and her firing. State charges filed in connection with the case are pending. Under the law in Alabama, she is still entitled to her $51,000-a-year salary while she appeals her firing. School officials are not happy that they now have to pay both Schmitz and her replacement. But her attorney says they must obey the law. On Valentine’s Day 2008, a jury found Schmitz guilty of two federal charges of enticing a child by electronic means, and she received the 10-year sentence. Three weeks after her conviction, the school board sent the tenured reading teacher a notice of its intent to terminate her. The school board officially fired Schmitz at a meeting in late March. Schmitz and her employment attorney, Henry Caddell, filed an appeal with the school board. The state defines its teachers as tenured by their time of service and experience. The Alabama Teacher Tenure Law, meant to protect tenured teachers from unfair firings, gives them a chance to appeal their firings with the board. A change made to the law in 2004 requires the board to continue paying Schmitz until her employment appeal is heard and decided by an arbitrator. “Ms. Schmitz is entitled to receive pay until all this is determined,” Caddell said. The school board would like nothing more than to have an arbitrator hear Schmitz’s case so it can move on, but the law is not on its side. In Alabama, when there are parallel criminal and civil cases, all criminal charges must be resolved before any civil matters can be dealt with. Schmitz must exhaust all avenues of appeal before the criminal case can be considered resolved. A three-judge panel has turned down her initial federal appeal, but her criminal attorney, Donald Briskman, has asked a full panel of judges to review the case. Briskman said there wasn’t enough evidence to support a conviction. “We feel that there were some leaps the jury would have had to make to reach that decision,” Briskman said. If the request for a full panel of judges is unsuccessful, the case could be appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court. According to school board attorney Martin Pierson, the fight is far from over when the federal case is settled. Charges are pending at the state level. That could mean another trial and the likelihood of more appeals. The criminal appeals could delay the employment appeal for years. Washington County School District Superintendent Tim Savage says that because the board must now pay both Schmitz and her replacement, the schools and the students are the poorer for it. “It’s taking money out from in front of students, and that’s just wrong,” Savage said. The school board has tried another avenue to get an emergency stop in Schmitz’s pay, but a judge overruled the attempt and told the board to wait on the arbitrator’s ruling. “The theory behind the law is good,” Pierson said. If a teacher feels that he or she is unfairly fired or accused of something by the board, they get a chance to have an outside arbitrator hear the case while continuing to collect pay to support their families. “She has always maintained her innocence,” Briskman said of Schmitz. “It’s not my job to do the judging, but a jury has convicted her,” Savage retorted. None of the attorneys could say when the case and all its appeals might be resolved.