Dr. Bert Miller taught math in Baltimore County for almost 40 years. He holds master’s, associate’s and doctorate degrees in mathematics education, has earned two National Science Foundation fellowships, has published software for math teachers, and he even discovered a new theorem in 2009. In his second year of teaching in the county in 1974, the office of the state superintendent personally contacted him to apply for Maryland Teacher of the Year.
Yet, in June 2010, Miller retired under protest as he was facing termination for incompetence. The termination followed two years of unsatisfactory teacher evaluations, during which he was denied contractually mandated appeals. He believes, and a colleague’s deposition showed, that anti-Semitism among members of his appraisal team played a major role.
“It was a conspiracy, there’s no question,” Miller, a 66-year-old Orthodox Jew, said. His suit against the Baltimore County Board of Education is set for a five-day civil jury trial in May in the Circuit Court.
Miller started teaching at New Town High School in Owings Mills in 2005 after more than three decades of a successful teaching career. It wasn’t long before he started to clash with his superiors.
The most substantial evidence of anti-Semitism came to light later, when a colleague of Miller’s was deposed by the Baltimore County Board of Education. She claimed that his immediate supervisor, who was a member of his appraisal team, regularly referred to Miller as a “dirty, smelly Jew,” bribed volleyball players with starting positions to get their parents to complain about Miller to the principal and placed a lemon with pins in it on Miller’s keyboard, a witchcraft ritual that brings bad luck.
“This is Maryland, one of the bluest states in the nation in one of the bluest counties in the state,” said Kevin Joyce, Miller’s attorney. “From Dr. Miller’s perspective, it’s appalling and I’m inclined to agree with him. ‘Dirty, smelly Jew’ — there’s no other way to interpret that.”
The Jewish Times confirmed the colleague’s testimony in regards to the ‘dirty, smelly Jew’ comment and the lemon incident via court documents.
Miller ran afoul of administration early in his time at New Town High, he said. The first thing he picked up was in 2007, when he needed two days off during state exams to observe Shavuot. He claims that a member of his appraisal team, who has a master’s degree in theology, said there’s no such holiday. Miller was criticized for being behind the pace of the curriculum in a trigonometry class when he was absent for five of the previous 23 days observing Rosh Hashanah, two days of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. The school was closed for Yom Kippur and the first day of Rosh Hashanah.
“If there is a fact to be understood in a way most harmful to me, that’s the way the appraisal team would choose to understand the fact,” Miller said. “‘Students have low grades? Well, it’s obvious you’re a bad teacher. What other explanation could there be?’”
Baltimore County Public Schools, the law firm representing Baltimore County and the Teachers Association of Baltimore County declined to comment on the case. Baltimore County school spokesman Mychael Dickerson said the school system’s insurance policy is paying for representation from Towson firm Pessin Katz Law.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the global Jewish human rights organization Simon Wiesenthal Center, said it’s an unfortunate reality that anti-Semitism is alive and well.
“It’s our obligation when we confront or see that something that smells like it represents hatred and bigotry — that’s a wake-up call that we should do something about it,” he said. “You can’t prevent them because evil exists and anti-Semitism exists, but you have to fight against it and make a big stink about it,” he said.
A new Anti-Defamation League survey shows that 12 percent of Americans hold anti-Semitic views, a 3 percent decline from the ADL’s 2011 poll. Fourteen percent said Jews have too much power in the U.S. and 26 percent blame Jews for the death of Jesus.
While Miller feels there were some more blatant instances of prejudice, he also noticed some unorthodox evaluation practices. Once, he was observed on the fourth day of school, when he claims he was still learning all the students’ names. Another member of the appraisal team once observed him for only 20 minutes. Another observation, which ended with 10 out of 10 students getting 100 percent on a quiz, was rated unsatisfactory.
In the second semester of the 2008 to 2009 school year, he was only given one observation when he was supposed to have two due to his previous unsatisfactory ratings. Even though the semester started Jan. 24, his Jan. 10 observation was counted, he said.
“This is well beyond intellectual dishonesty,” Miller said. “When you put all that together, with ‘dirty, smelly Jew’ and the Wiccan intimidation with pins in the lemon and the administration knowing about it and not doing anything and criticizing me for being behind the curriculum pace when I was absent five days in the previous 23, I think I’m beginning to see a pattern in the data.”
Miller was also made into a trouble maker when he pointed out academic inconsistencies as exemplified by a college algebra class that did not have proper preparation for the course and teachers getting less preparation time than contracts mandate. While the complaint about teacher prep time was made anonymously, the administration wanted to know and found out who made the complaint, Miller said.
A friend of his who taught at a neighboring high school told Miller that the math department chair at that school said that New Town High was trying to get rid of Miller. The comment was made a day after there was a county meeting of administrative personnel, Miller said.
When a teacher is given an unsatisfactory evaluation, there is a three-level appeal process. The first appeal is with the assistant superintendent, the second with the superintendent’s designee and the third with an arbitrator paid by the Board of Education. Miller never received his third-level appeals for his four unsatisfactory evaluations, one for each semester. His breach of contract suit is over the denial of third-level appeals.
After two years of unsatisfactory evaluations, Miller retired in protest in June 2010 prior to a termination date of June 30, in order to maintain retirement benefits he had earned.
“We’re confident that if an appeal does take place, [anti-Semitism] will be part of an appeal, and I’m confident we’ll win,” Joyce said. He expects the case to last until 2015 or longer with the appeals the Board of Education is expected to file after court judgments.
“You could see this thing stretched out for another four years,” he said.
A story Miller likes to tell about his teaching record is that of a female African-American student who won a trip to Atlanta to present a prize-winning essay at a national conference. The topic? How Miller, her demanding math teacher, helped her turn her life around by expressing his admiration for her work and behavior and saying he respected her for acting like a lady.
“Dr. Miller has no idea those are words I will take to my grave,” the student wrote. “They are words that get me through some of my darkest moments.”
While the suit is seeking monetary damages, settlement offers of $2,000 and $10,000 were declined. Joyce thinks Miller’s main concern is having his name cleared, the ability to work again and someone taking the responsibility for the events that led to his early retirement.
“They effectively ended my career,” Miller said.
Marc Shapiro is a JT staff reporter — firstname.lastname@example.org