Rye teacher sues district, board for $1 million
Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy, firstname.lastname@example.org
RYE – A teacher who was put on administrative leave for "testing irregularities" almost a year ago is suing the district — and several board members individually — for sullying her reputation and keeping her off her job.
Carin Mehler, a tenured fourth-grade teacher at Osborn Elementary School
, claims in the $1 million lawsuit that, by not filing any charges against her, the district is trying to coerce her into admitting a wrongful act.
In the suit, filed in White Plains federal court Wednesday, Mehler also alleges that she has been "warned" to stay away from Osborn Elementary School, where her daughter is a student.
Mehler was one of four teachers to be placed on administrative leave for improper coaching during the state assessment tests in April.
Shannon Gold, a fourth-grade teacher at Milton Elementary School, resigned from the district in January. Gail Topol, a third-grade teacher at Osborn, returned to the classroom in February after paying a fine of $2,500 and converting 27 days of her administrative reassignment to a paid suspension.
Shortly after the agreement with Topol, Trustee Ed Fox said the settlement
could be construed as a "sweetheart deal" due to Topol's lawyer's connection with school board President Laura Slack. Slack's husband, Richard, was appointed to the Rye City Council by the lawyer's husband, new Mayor Joseph Sack, in January.
Fox is the only board member who is not being sued by Mehler.
No agreement has been reached with Dana Coppola, a third-grade teacher at Milton, who was recently reassigned to central administrative offices, leaving Mehler to work alone "in a rubber room."
Meanwhile, Jaime Zung, president of the Rye Teacher's Association, in a letter to the school board and Schools Superintendent Frank Alvarez, talks about others teachers in the district seeing Mehler's situation as akin to being in "solitary confinement."
"It is becoming more and more difficult, after almost a year has gone by, for us to continue to remain silent," wrote Zung. "As teachers and colleagues, none of us believe that either of these ladies has done anything wrong."
Arthur Schwartz, the attorney who represents both Mehler and Coppola, said the teachers want nothing more than to go back to their classrooms.
"They are trying to coerce them into some sort of admission of wrongdoing, and make a deal," Schwartz said. "The reason the district doesn't want to charge them and have a hearing is because they don't have a case."
Schwartz said Coppola was "considering her options."
The school district, meanwhile, claimed the lawsuit was designed to coerce the board.
"The board's perspective is that claims set forth are without merit and are designed to coerce the board to ignore the allegations and return the teacher to the classroom. The board has acted in full compliance with state law and/or regulations throughout the teacher investigation matter and, as the public is aware, progress on this matter has been evidenced through the two settlements reached earlier this year," reads a statement. "While counsel for this plaintiff may be frustrated at the lack of resolution to date, we find it grossly irresponsible to have taken the extreme position of filing an illogical and baseless claim."
In January, after eight months without a resolution to the cases, the board signed extended contracts with four leave-replacement teachers for the rest of the school year.
The district has said the total salary of the leave-replacement teachers for one semester is $136,417. A second-semester contract until the end of the school year was signed in January.
According to salaries reported by the state Teachers Retirement System, in 2012-13, the suspended teachers' annual salaries were: Mehler, $125,683; Gold, $86,601; Topol, $126,409, and Coppola, $123,737.
Schwartz said that by dragging the case on, the board was "using taxpayer money for saving their face."
Parents and students say they are frustrated and upset that four teachers have been removed from classrooms at Milton and Osborn Schools amidst allegations they helped their students cheat on state assessments.
A young mother in tears said that her eight-year-old daughter never wanted to return to school during last week's Rye City School District Board of Education
“Mommy, did I make my teacher go away?” the mother said her daughter asked.
The daughter was one of several students who were questioned about the behavior of their teachers during recent state testing, the mother said. After the children were questioned, the teacher was reassigned, which caused her daughter to feel responsible, guilty and confused, she told the board.
“My daughter doesn’t want to come back to school again. She feels responsible for what happened,” the mother said. Later in the meeting, a father said his child felt the same way.
Rye parents have been writing letters, signing petitions and speaking out in public against the Rye City School District’s reaction to allegations that four elementary school teachers “improperly coached” t
heir students on state assessments this April. While the district will not confirm the names of the reassigned teachers, Osborn School teacher Carin Mehler was mentioned many times by parents who commended her teaching. The Rye Sound Shore Review identified Osborn teacher Gail Topol and Milton teacher Dana Coppola as the other teachers who were reassigned on May 7, the day after someone reported the alleged cheating to the district. The district confirmed a fourth teacher from Milton school was also reassigned since then due to the same allegations. That person’s name has also not been released. All four teachers have been reassigned with pay while the State Department of Education investigates the allegations.
Superintendent Frank Alvarez said no one has been accused but the district is required to report any allegations of improprieties to the State Department of Education. The district also sent a letter detailing the allegations to the Westchester County District Attorney’s office in late May, and they are investigating the matter.
Since the allegations were made, the district has questioned children with their parents present or with parental consent, with the exception of the daughter of the mother who was in tears over the situation at the meeting, according to Alvarez.
Parents questioned why the district had to reassign the teachers with only a month left of school and told detailed stories about how the particular people involved have been great teachers to their children.
A mother who has worked as a school psychologist has worked on gathering signatures on a petition asking for the Osborn teachers to be reinstated by Sept. 9, 2013.
“The teacher saved my son Zachery’s life,” she said.
She and other parents said they heard the teachers would not be doing their children’s placements for next year or their report cards. Alvarez said that was not true and arrangements have been made for the reassigned teachers to complete their students’ report cards and placements. He also denied that anyone told children that their teacher’s were gravely ill, another claim that was made during the last Board of Education meeting.
“We are as troubled as many of you about these allegations and concerned for the disturbance it has had in our schools,” Alvarez said.
When pressed about whether the allegations required the district to remove the teachers from the classroom with about seven weeks of school left in the year, BOE President Laura Slack said she understood the frustration parents felt over the district’s inability to release more information but that school officials are not allowed to answer that question because it was a personnel matter.
“We have great faith in our teachers and we have great faith in our school administrators. We need to allow the investigation to proceed so we can get to the truth,” Alvarez said. “They are only allegations, we are not accusing the teachers of anything.”
The teachers are still reassigned while the investigation continues, according to the district spokesperson.
Also at the meeting, parents complained about the substitute teachers, claiming their students had not been learning anything since their original teachers were reassigned. Alvarez said that was not what he understood to be the case but that they would look into the matter.
*Editor's Note: The article has been changed from its original version to reflect that the DA's office is investigating the allegations.
Rye teachers still in limbo over testing flap after five months; no scores for students
RYE — A lawyer for two of four Rye teachers who were removed from their classrooms in May amid allegations of improper coaching says inaction by the Board of Education is preventing the teachers from establishing their innocence and returning to school.
Five months after the elementary school teachers were placed on administrative reassignment for “testing irregularities” during the April state tests — based on the new Common Core learning standards — the school board has yet to press charges. That means the teachers can’t demand a hearing.
“It has been hanging like a dark cloud over their heads,” said lawyer Arthur Schwartz. “The teachers want to go back to their classrooms.”
Legally, the board has six months to make a determination, said Schwartz.
Earlier this week, parents of students from the four classrooms learnedthat their children will not be receiving the results of the state assessments.
“The state Education Department has deemed all scores associated with the four teachers invalid,” Schools Superintendent Frank Alvarez wrote in a letter to parents.
The case is also under investigation by the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office.
Schwartz is representing Carin Mehler, a fourth-grade teacher at Osborn Elementary School, and Dana Coppola, a third-grade teacher at Milton Elementary School. The other two teachers are Gail Topol, who teaches third grade at Osborn, and Shannon Gold, who teaches fourth grade at Milton.
“They (the teachers) are very upset. Mrs. Mehler has a child in the school where she was teaching, and that is causing her additional stress,” said Schwartz. “They believe the allegations are from one parent who was concerned their child would do too well, and wouldn’t be eligible for special services they were seeking from the district.”
Alvarez said he couldn’t discuss details of the case.
“This matter continues to be an ongoing investigation,” the superintendent said. “As it is a personnel matter, the district is precluded from discussing details. We will share information as able and when a resolution is reached.”
The district sent out a letter to the community May 24 saying it had been informed of a possible “testing irregularity” by a parent.
“As soon as this allegation was brought to the district’s attention, district officials immediately filed a report with the state Education Department and began an internal investigation on May 7,” it said.
While that letter said “a” parent prompted the investigation, school board President Laura Slack said during a Sep. 10 meeting that “several parents and children came forward with allegations regarding the administration of the tests.”
“The district conducted a preliminary investigation and found enough reason to believe the allegations are sufficiently credible,” Slack said.
Parents have been a constant presence at school board meetings since May, defending the well-liked, longtime teachers and criticizing the district’s handling of the case. A petition started by Osborne parents asking the district to reinstate their teachers has more than 117 signatures.
Many parents say the district mishandled the investigation by improperly questioning 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds weeks after the tests were administered.
“My child felt extremely responsible,” said Caroline Logan. “The children were all confused about why their teacher was pulled out suddenly and if it was because of something they said.”
Logan said the district was not forthcoming with reasons for interviewing the children, and that parents were led to believe it was going to be only about the new tests.
Others bemoan the additional tax burden of supporting four leave replacements while the teachers continue to get paid their full salary.
“The board should either file charges or drop the investigation, so the tax money of Rye residents is not spent without ground,” said Boukje van den Bosch-Smits, whose daughter was in Mehler’s class. “There is no allegation of actual cheating. And remember, it was the decision of the district to have teachers proctoring their own classes.”
Shelley Karlen, a retired teacher who currently doesn’t have children in the district, said it was impossible to come to a fair conclusion on the investigation based on the testimony of elementary school kids.
“What do they call helping? Is telling third graders how to fill in the bubble sheet cheating?,” asked Karlen. “There is a level of fear with the new testing. The administration was grandstanding by calling the Westchester DA, and to me, it smacks of a witch hunt.”
Last month, the Peekskill school district settled with three of four guidance counselors who were accused of handing out credits to students for phony courses. A fourth counselor resigned earlier this year and was not part of the settlement. The transcript scandal broke in January when school officials said at least 34 seniors received credits for a “co-op” class, which was discontinued years ago. Both the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office and the state Education Department are investigating the case.