ROMNEY -- Former House of Delegates Education Committee Chairman Jerry Mezzatesta was fired from his school job Friday, putting a likely end to a 36-year education career that saw him rise from a history teacher to one of the most powerful politicians in West Virginia.
After a six-hour disciplinary hearing, Hampshire school board members voted unanimously to dismiss Mezzatesta from his $60,000-a-year job as "community specialist."
Board members concluded that Mezzatesta improperly solicited state education grants for Hampshire schools, defying an order they had given him seven years ago when he was hired as a board office administrator. The board also alleged that Mezzatesta took part in the misappropriation of a state grant.
Earlier this week, Mezzatesta was indicted on a misdemeanor charge that he lied to the state Ethics Commission about his grant work.
"The board was quite clear that he was not to solicit grants, and he did it anyway," said Larry Schultz, a lawyer for Hampshire schools. "The light at the end of the tunnel is finally out there for this Board of Education. A few months ago, the tunnel seemed like it was going to go on forever."
Hampshire school employees hugged and celebrated late Friday afternoon outside the board meeting room after learning that Mezzatesta would no longer be working at the board office - effective immediately. Teachers, business owners and parents have been calling on Hampshire board members to fire Mezzatesta for nearly a year.
"This is a big step in the right direction," said Candy Canan, vice president of the Hampshire County Education Association. "Today, closure begins.
"This whole episode has brought about a huge division in our community. Because of that, the focus hasn't been on what it should be, and that is the children."
Two school board member wiped tears from their eyes as they cast their votes to fire Mezzatesta.
"It was a hard decision, but I felt we had to do what was right," said Hampshire board member Linda Baker.
Mezzatesta's attorney plans to file an appeal with the state grievance board, which reviews employee disciplinary matters.
"There was no basis for the termination," said Deirdre Purdy, a Charleston lawyer. "It was wrong."
About 20 people - critics and supporters of Mezzatesta - waited at the board office throughout the day for the school board's decision. Some peaked through a small window to watch Mezzatesta's hearing behind closed doors. By lunchtime, school board members ordered that copy paper be taped across the window.
Stan Hopkins, an assistant superintendent with the state Department of Education, said he told Hampshire board members that $35,000 of a $75,000 grant given to Hampshire County was misspent.