HOLLIDAYSBURG - A Blair County judge has declined to overturn an arbitration ruling in which a Bellwood-Antis School District cafeteria worker was cleared of theft accusations that caused her to lose her job.
Judge Wade Kagarise issued his ruling Wednesday, allowing a decision rendered in February by arbitrator Ronald Talarico of Pittsburgh to stand.
Talarico concluded that the former employee's termination should be reduced to a 10-day suspension, that she should be reinstated to her former position and that Bellwood-Antis should issue back pay and benefits.
The school district, contending that the former employee, by allowing some students and staff to pass through the lunch line without recording charges for lunches and lunch items, was guilty of theft of public funds.
Because the employee was never criminally charged, the Mirror is not identifying her.
Kagarise, in his ruling, acknowledged that appellate case law gives him the authority to set aside an arbitrator's decision if that decision violates a "well defined" public policy.
In court Tuesday, school district Solicitor David Andrews argued for Kagarise to apply that exception.
"We believe this is tolerance of theft of public funds," Andrews said.
But Kagarise said the appellate case law "clearly articulates" that he should not substitute his own judgment in place of the arbitrator's.
Talarico's decision "specifically disregarded the employer's argument that a crime had been committed or that (the employee's) actions were deliberate," Kagarise said.
The dispute goes back to late 2012 when the district initiated an investigation into reports of students and faculty going through the lunch line without being charged for their purchases. But the investigation, according to details outlined in the arbitration ruling, showed the employee failing to charge or apply charges in eight or nine cases for lunch items purchased during a week involving 700 to 800 transactions. The loss to the district, at most, was estimated at $26.05, according to the details in the ruling.
Attorney Charles T. Joyce, on behalf of the former employee represented by
the Service Employees International Union, said Bellwood-Antis had no valid reason to appeal the arbitrator's decision.
While mistakes were made, they were not deliberate, he told Kagarise in court.
Joyce also challenged the district's stance that Kagarise could overturn the arbitration ruling because the school district and the union both agreed to use arbitration to handle grievances.
Joyce, after Tuesday's hearing, declined to say if the employee wants to return to work for the school district.
"What she wants is to be vindicated, and she will be," Joyce said.
Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.