When the school bell rang Tuesday morning at Chartiers Valley Intermediate School in Scott, it not only signaled the start of classes but the end to 15 years of legal wrangling for William Merrell, who began his first day as a teacher.
A 20-year Air Force veteran with two master's degrees, including one in education, Mr. Merrell won the right to his teaching job under the Pennsylvania Veterans Preference Act, which gives priority to soldiers who are seeking non-civil service public appointments.
Mr. Merrell filed suit in July 1999 after not being hired for any of three open social studies positions that year, as well as having been turned down for a similar position two years earlier.
The matter has been through Common Pleas Court, Commonwealth Court and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and is back again at the state's top court.
All four teaching jobs were filled with non-veterans, even though Mr. Merrell had provided documents explaining the U. S. Defense Department's "Troops to Teachers" program that would have given the district a cash incentive for the first five years of his employment.
A decision on Sept. 3, 2010, by Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Timothy P. O'Reilly ruled in Mr. Merrell's favor, noting in part that the selection process had been applied unfairly in 1997 and that the score of the person who was hired was improperly averaged and miscalculated.
Mr. Merrell "had much more education, better credentials and vast experience in the world," the judge concluded.
Last week, the school board voted 8-0 with one member absent to comply with Judge Reilly's order to hire Mr. Merrell with an effective starting date of July 1997, with all wages and benefits that the job carries. Chartiers Valley superintendent Brian White, who joined the district in August 2010, and Mr. Merrell said issues such as back pay and benefits remain to be settled.
Mr. Merrell was awarded the teaching job last Wednesday, the day after the board's vote. On Friday, Mr. White confirmed that Mr. Merrell was hired and going through orientation.
Mr. Merrell, 62, of Peters, will teach eighth-grade civics and government. No one was displaced by his hiring. The school board created a new position for a teacher already on staff.
Mr. Merrell is a member of the Peters school board and worked as a director of safety construction for several companies through 2010.
He said he had been preparing for his teaching job.
"I have two years of lesson plans already figured out," he said. His classes total 130 students and he has already overseen lunch duty.
He said the Chartiers Valley teachers and students have been wonderful.
When he initially applied for a teaching position at Chartiers Valley, Mr. Merrell lived in Scott and his five children went to school in the district.
Last week, when a student asked how long his case had been pending, Mr. Merrell replied that it started in the 1997 school year. The student responded: "I was not even born then."
Carole Gilbert Brown, freelance writer: email@example.com