By LIZ BUTTON
On Tuesday, Rye City School District officials took time at the first school board meeting of the year to dispel rumors circulating in the community that formal charges had been brought against the four elementary school teachers accused of improper coaching on state tests in April.
The four teachers were reassigned in May pursuant to an investigation into allegations connected to their administration of the state math and English language arts tests.
Last month, the administration told the two accused Osborn teachers—Carin Mehler, who teaches fourth grade, and Gail Topol, a third grade teacher—and the two accused Milton teachers—third grade teacher Dana Coppola and Shannon Gold, a fourth grade teacher—that their suspension had not yet been lifted.
A host of widely varying information has been circulated by parents and other community members during the summer months, including speculation the teachers had been formally charged, that the board had voted on the charges, and that the teachers had been offered a settlement that would allow them to return to the classroom if they admitted culpability.
After remaining relatively mute on these issues over the summer, the district issued a prepared statement read by Board of Education President Laura Slack at the Sept. 10 meeting to clear up certain “rumors and misconceptions” that reached the board’s attention.
At the same time, Slack acknowledged that school district officials are, as they have been from the start of the controversy, unable to provide further information due to employee privacy and legal prohibitions.
Slack said that, after conducting their preliminary investigation, district officials “found enough reason to believe the allegations are sufficiently credible.” After notifying the state Education Department’s investigative unit and the county District Attorney’s office, as required by law, Superintendent Dr. Frank Alvarez, in consultation with the school district’s attorney, decided to assign the teachers to administrative leave.
“The state views any such allegations very seriously, as do the board and school district community, regardless of whether those accused are otherwise good teachers or well-liked employees,” Slack said.
The idea that the four teachers were well-liked was notably evident during two Board of Education meetings in June that brought out emotionally charged Osborn and Milton school parents, mostly from Osborn in support of Mehler, to air their grievances. In addition, an anonymous parent posted an online petition in July to reinstate the teachers which has, so far, garnered 117 signatures.
But the Sept. 10 meeting was poorly attended in comparison.
Osborn parent Boukje Van Den Bosch-Smits was the only Osborn parent to comment publicly.
Van Den Bosch-Smits said she understands that information relating to the matter is confidential, but “keeping the community in the dark has led to a lot of unnecessary frustration and has been the cause of lots of speculation, which has been damaging to all involved,” she said.
While she does not oppose an appropriate fine or suspension if the investigation shows the allegations are true, “by now you must know if they did or didn’t,” said Van Den Bosch-Smits. If the evidence is sufficient, then any charges should be brought as soon as possible so the teachers can return to their classrooms, she said.
Slack verified for the public that no formal charges had been presented to the Board of Education as of yet. She added that state education law prohibits the board from taking action during the summer when school is not in session, but that any board vote on a disciplinary charge must be by majority, rather than unanimous, as some had speculated.
The only manner in which a tenured teacher can be disciplined is through a due process procedure or negotiated settlement, which would very likely involve state education officials, Slack said.
In the event that a settlement is reached, the district would only sign off on one that officials believe is in the best interest of the district, the students and the community, Slack said.
The only other speaker during the night’s public comment session was David Schwartz-Leeper, Gail Topol’s lawyer. Schwartz-Leeper, who has been a corporate litigator for 30 years and has three children who attended school in the district, advised the district to resolve the matter another way in order to avoid facing costly litigation in the future.
Schwartz-Leeper, noting that he spoke only for Topol. said he does not believe the district will be able to satisfy its burden of persuasion if charges are brought.
Litigation, potentially “a very invasive, time consuming and disruptive process,” is undesirable for all parties involved: the parents, the students, the teachers, the school district, and, ultimately the community’s taxpayers, Schwartz-Leeper said.
Home values in Rye may also be damaged due to sustained bad press that might result from the continuation of this contentious matter, he suggested.