PHILLIPSBURG, N.J. - Just moments before the Phillipsburg Board of Education voted Monday night to terminate a substitute teacher who showed a student a Bible, a sudden downpour of rain could be heard hitting the roof of the middle school meeting area.
Was there some sort of message to be gleaned from this meteorological event? The answer comes down to one's personal point of view.
To the protest of several members of the public in attendance, Phillipsburg Superintendent George Chando's recommendation to terminate substitute teacher Walter Tutka was approved Monday night by the entire board of education, except for three new members who abstained from voting and one board member who was absent from the meeting.
The decision to terminate Tutka comes about three months after he was removed from teaching. Back in the fall, Tutka, while in Phillipsburg Middle School, quoted the Bible saying, "So the last will be first, and the first will be last" to a student who was last in line leaving the classroom.
The student asked Tutka where the statement was from and inquired about it seven times, Tutka said at a school board meeting in November. Tutka used his own personal copy of the New Testament in order to show the student from where he quoted the saying.
The school board and administration offered very little information upon voting to terminate Tutka, citing the issue as a confidential personnel matter. When asked by members of the public to give specific reasons for Tutka's firing, legal counsel for the board would only say that "the board will not comment on personnel matters."
In an interview following the meeting, Tutka told 69 News that he has not yet received a detailed explanation for being removed from the classroom, other than being told that he had violated the district's religion and distribution policies.
During the meeting, following the board's vote to terminate Tutka, Chando responded in the affirmative to an inquiry by Tutka if he would receive a letter from the district stating the specific reasons for his termination.
The board's decision was to terminate Tutka from the approved district substitute list for the remainder of the 2012-13 school year. Officials would not comment if that meant Tutka would have the ability to reapply the following school year.
Following the meeting, Tutka said he may consider taking action against the school district for his ouster. Tutka, an electric company retiree from Belvidere, started substitute teaching in early 2012 in seven different schools.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, eight people called on the board to retain Tutka, including Joe Imhof, who accused district officials of overreacting, especially when considering that Tutka showed the student the Bible during lunchtime, outside the the course of classroom instruction.
Imhof accused the board of being hostile toward a particular religion in its decision to terminate Tutka, which he said is disallowed in the district's religion policy. "The board, in effect, has violated its own policy," Imhof said.
During the meeting, the board was also presented with a proposed update to the district's Religion in the Schools policy. When being pressed by members of the public on what these proposed changes are and if they had any relation to Tutka's termination, board legal counsel recommended school officials not elaborate at this time.
Since the proposed policy change still needs two public readings before its adoption, legal counsel said it would be "premature" to discuss the potential changes at this time.
It appeared during the meeting that there was an effort by the board to limit public comment. During the second and final public comment portion of the meeting, the board vice president informed community members who had already spoken that they would not be allowed to speak again on the same agenda item. After being contested by Imhof, the board allowed him and others to again speak on the Tutka matter after conferring with legal counsel.
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