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School Board to pay suspended combat veteran
Ocala Star-Banner - 1/30/2020
Jan. 29--The School Board on Tuesday conducted a financial rescue mission of Mike Hickman, a Belleview High School dean and combat veteran who was suspended without pay two weeks ago after testing positive for medically prescribed marijuana.
Most board members said during Tuesday's meeting that they made a mistake when suspending Hickman without pay. They thought he would be suspended with pay, pending a hearing before an administrative law judge.
Thanks to Tuesday's decision, Hickman now is on paid leave status while the administrative law process plays out. He will be paid retroactively to Jan. 14
Superintendent Heidi Maier has recommended that Hickman be fired for violating School Board policy. Hickman hurt his shoulder while breaking up a fight at Belleview High. He went to the district's worker compensation doctor, who reported to the district that he tested positive for cannabinoids. That is considered a violation of the school system's zero tolerance alcohol and drug-free workplace policy, which was established by the board.
The recommended firing of Hickman, who served during Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the early 1990s, made national news.
Hickman, 50, was happy to hear about Tuesday night's board decision when the Star-Banner contacted him. However, Hickman said he will not make any more statements about his case until after his hearing before an administrative law judge later this year.
On Tuesday, board member Nancy Stacy asked that the previous decision be revisited. By law, a board member on the prevailing side of a vote can ask to revisit a decision.
Stacy said she intended two weeks ago to discuss Maier's recommendation to suspend Hickman. That matter had been placed on the meeting's consent agenda.
Stacy said she wanted to discuss the unusual case and had planned to suggest Hickman be paid while on suspension.
In a speech Tuesday, Stacy apologized for what happened at the earlier meeting. She said that medication, including oxycodone, is considered legal if a doctor prescribes it.
"Board members, I think we owe our employees a huge apology," Stacy said. "We failed them by not notifying our employees that our board policy and federal guidelines conflict with our (Florida) constitutional amendment that legalized medical marijuana. Shame on us."
She added: "We don't warn our employees by terminating them" and "This School Board member refuses to get into the way of our employees and their physicians."
Board member Beth McCall said the case puts the board in uncharted waters.
"I think we have to be concerned about setting precedent," McCall noted. "We have a current policy in place that there is no tolerance. I do understand that one day there will be a test, hopefully, that can calibrate the amount of marijuana in the system that we can use. That is not available at this point."
At the same time, McCall said she understands that Hickman "had a medical marijuana card."
McCall said Marion County is one of the first school districts to face such a dilemma. She said many school districts statewide "are treading on thin ice in regards to the issue." She said that those districts are looking at the Marion case because the "decision we make sets a precedent."
"I think we really need to look at what that precedent says," McCall said. For example, if the policy changed, how would the board handle a teacher who smoked marijuana, without a medical card, to address work-related anxiety?
"I think this is uncharted waters and we need to be very, very, very careful," said McCall, adding there needs to be a policy change to address medical marijuana. "This is an issue we have to address."
Member Nancy Thrower said she did not fully understand that her Jan. 14 vote put Hickman in unpaid status. Member Kelly King said she, too, favors paying Hickman while the administrative law process plays out.
"We do need to figure out what our policy is," King noted.
Board Chairman Eric Cummings said Wednesday that the majority of the board thought their Jan. 14 vote put Hickman on paid leave.
Cummings said the board must pay the employee until the hearing, and then the board can make an informed decision.
"A lot of states and a lot of districts are looking at our case as a precedent," Cummings noted. "We must pay him until his hearing and look at our policies."
The School Board, which used to conduct nearly all employee hearings, agreed last year to send most cases out to an impartial judge. That's because when the board holds the hearing, it plays the role of both judge and jury. An administrative law judge issues recommendations to the board, which makes the final decision on the cases.
-- Joe Callahan can be reached at 867-4113 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoeOcalaNews.
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