Gay teacher's estate sues district over severance pay
By Ted Roelofs, The Grand Rapids Press
Two years after Gerry Crane died of a heart attack, the bitter fight continues over the legacy of the Byron Center High School music teacher.
Crane's former partner, Randy Block, is suing Byron Center Public Schools, contending they reneged on $25,800 in salary payments he says they owe under a severance agreement with Crane.
As representative of Crane's estate, Block said he is battling for the principle, not the money -- and believes the gay teacher would have wanted him to make this stand.
"He had a stubborn streak in him. The principle of the issue would have stuck out more than the money," Block said.
Block filed suit in Kent County Circuit Court, asking that the schools make good on the payments.
School attorney Patrick White said Block is owed nothing.
He said the severance agreement with Crane was a standard salary continuation contract.
"It was conditioned on his continuing to actually seek employment --which he obviously and unfortunately can't do," White said.
"If another teacher died with his contract in place, he would not get paid for the rest of the year. I don't see that this is any different. Nobody anticipated that a man that young would die. It's clearly an unexpected circumstance."
Crane died at age 32 on Jan. 3, 1997, from heart failure linked to a hereditary congenital heart condition. Kent County forensic pathologist Dr. Stephen Cohle said the stress of Crane's conflict with the Byron Center schools may have contributed to his death.
Controversy over Crane surfaced at a November 1995 school board meeting when more than 100 people turned out, many demanding Crane resign or be fired because he was homosexual. The issue surfaced when parents discovered Crane and Block had participated in a commitment ceremony.
The board decided to retain Crane but issued a statement that condemned homosexuality. He later was issued a three-day suspension for correcting a student who used the word "faggot" and for encouraging tolerance of gays.
Crane resigned in July 1996 with a $44,000 severance package tied to a promise not to sue the district. Payments stopped shortly after his death.
Block's attorney, William Young, said he was unsuccessful in attempts to negotiate a settlement with the district.
"It's unfortunate. We didn't want to do this. But we felt we had no other recourse," Young said.
The agreement states: "The board agrees that it will continue Mr. Crane's salary and health insurance coverage through the 1996-97 school year."
It also states: "Mr. Crane will make good-faith efforts to obtain employment during this period."
Young maintained the district has failed to live up to the contract.
"He should have been paid the full amount and he wasn't. He resigned in exchange for payment of money," Young said.
"The whole thing is unfortunate. This is not a gay rights case. They agreed to pay him the money and they didn't pay him the money. That's why we're fighting it out."
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Last updated 2/11/99 by Jean Richter, richter@eecs.Berkeley.EDU