Pubdate: Thu, 15 Mar 2007
Source: Morning Call (Allentown, PA)
Copyright: 2007 The Morning Call Inc.
Author: Steve Esack, Matt Assad of The Morning Call


They Fear District Is Trying to Blame Them for Principal's Actions.

The internal investigation into former Nitschmann  Middle School 
Principal John Acerra's questionable work  habits hit a wall this 
week when the Bethlehem Area  School District's $400-an-hour lawyers 
had trouble  finding teachers willing to talk to them, according to 
district sources.

School board President Craig T. Haytmanek said  interviews with 
employees have been rescheduled for  next week because of PSSA 
testing and teachers who are  unwilling to attend meetings without 
their union attorneys.

However, three teachers who spoke on condition of  anonymity said 
they did not go to meetings with  investigators because there's 
confusion about whether  they can bring their lawyers and they 
believe the administration is using the investigation to shift  blame to them.

Acerra, who had been principal since 2000, resigned  last week after 
his Feb. 27 arrest on drug charges in  his school office.

"None of us is going to our interviews," one teacher  said Tuesday, a 
day when several scheduled interviews  never happened. "It just seems 
like they are looking  for someone to point the finger at, when they 
should be  pointing it at themselves."

Union officials declined to comment about the  interviews, but 
teachers union President Craig Zieger  noted, "Teachers had 
absolutely nothing to do with  this whole incident."

Haytmanek said employees have nothing to fear. The  interviews are 
voluntary, and the district doesn't have  subpoena power to compel 
staff to cooperate with the  investigation. He said trying to 
schedule interviews  with Pennsylvania State Education Association 
lawyers  has been difficult because there are only a few days  when 
the lawyers are available.

"Staff are requesting PSEA counsel be present during  some of the 
interviews," said Haytmanek, who is  leading the investigation. "That 
is a bit problematic  because there is somewhat ? of a limit on the 
number of  available dates PSEA has provided."

When Acerra, 50, was arrested in his Nitschmann office,  police say, 
he had a glass pipe, $200 in marked money  and a small bag containing 
crystal methamphetamine he  planned to sell to an informant. Twice 
before, police  say, Acerra had sold crystal meth. He remains in 
Lehigh  County Prison under $200,000 bail.

In the days after the arrest, teachers said they had  been 
complaining for more than a year about Acerra's  frequent absences. 
The school board launched an  independent investigation to determine 
how he was allowed to remain in charge of about 950 students.

Anxious teachers met Monday with Zieger, who in turn  met Tuesday 
with PSEA lawyer A. Martin Herring of  Philadelphia. Zieger said 
Herring has advised him not  to comment on the investigation.

Interviews that were supposed to be held this week were  canceled and 
rescheduled for next Thursday and March  26, teachers said.

Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests began  Monday and run 
through March 23.

Investigators are also trying to interview members of  Nitschmann's 
secretarial and custodial-maintenance  staffs. Secretaries and 
maintenance workers are  represented by Teamsters Local 773.

It could not be determined whether those union members  were also 
seeking legal representation before they talk  to investigators. 
Local 773 President Chuck Shafer and  union lawyer Bill Josem of 
Cleary & Josem in  Philadelphia did not return a call for comment.

"We as a district do not have subpoena power,"  Haytmanek said. "We 
as a district are running this  investigation to clear up this 
matter. I think it is  incumbent upon [district employees] to cooperate."

Haytmanek said the district's investigators from the  regional law 
firm of White and Williams told him Monday  they have interviewed 
Superintendent Joseph Lewis and  his seven-member Cabinet.

The investigators also interviewed six other  administrators, 
including Nitschmann's acting  principal, Jackie Santanasto, and 
Assistant Principal  Jonathan Horvath.

Haytmanek said investigators are also reviewing  personnel records 
and district policies to determine  whether Acerra's spotty 
attendance record should have  been an indication something was amiss.

Teachers said it remains unclear whether they will  attend interviews 
next week or whether they will  cooperate, even if they do. One thing 
is clear, they  say. "This whole building is a ball of nerves," one 
teacher said. "We feel like targets."
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