Milton teacher joins suit

By LIZ BUTTON

Third grade Milton School teacher Dana Coppola has joined fourth grade Osborn School teacher Carin Mehler in her lawsuit against six of the seven members of the Rye City School District Board of Education, Superintendent Dr. Frank Alvarez and several members of the district’s administration and staff, increasing total monetary damages sought from $2 million to $4 million.

After a year, none of the four elementary school teachers who were removed from their classrooms in May 2013 for alleged “improper coaching” on state tests have been charged with anything.

Two of the reassigned teachers, Shannon Gold and Gail Topol, have already reached settlements with the district.

On Friday, April 25, in addition to filing an amended version of Mehler’s March 27 complaint, Arthur Schwartz, attorney for the two teachers, filed a preliminary injunction on Coppola’s behalf to prevent the district from hiring another temporary leave replacement teacher to teach her class for the 2014-2015 school year. He filed a similar injunction on Mehler’s behalf at the time her individual suit was filed.

Over the past 12 months, the district has hired four temporary replacements for corresponding lengths of time over the teachers’ respective reassignment periods.

Arguments will be presented on May 22 at a federal court hearing in White Plains,
according to Schwartz. The hearing, in which lawyers from both sides must be present, may also feature testimony by one or more of the parties involved.

Mehler and Coppola are suing on the grounds the school district deprived them of their right to continued employment as tenured teachers by sullying their reputations with false accusations, and making it near impossible for them to pursue their careers as teachers in Rye or any other school district, violating their due process rights under the 5th and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution.

After the teachers union rallied at an April 8 school board meeting to show support for Coppola, who has been a tenured teacher at Milton since 2000, she was inspired to join Mehler and fight back using legal means. That night, Rye Teachers Association president Jaime Zung led the union in a chorus of testimonials to Coppola’s character and superior teaching ability.

In her affidavit submitted to the court last Friday, Coppola said, “I have been afforded no opportunity to clear my name, and comments continue to be made by individuals from the district that denigrate my competence and impugn my professional reputation…Despite numerous requests from my attorney and from my union that the district either bring charges and try me or publicly withdraw their allegations against me [individual board members have refused to act].”

Mehler’s original suit called for the defendants to furnish $1 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages, but this amount was doubled with the addition of Coppola.

Another change to the original suit is the addition of Milton School Principal Joanne Nardone, Coppola’s boss, to the list of defendants, which also include Mehler’s boss, Osborn School Principal Angela Garcia.

The school board and administrators, who hired Lewis Silverman of law firm Rutherford Christie’s in Manhattan shortly after Mehler filed suit, have until May 8 to respond to the amended complaint, Schwartz said. The case’s other defendant, Gus Mountanos, the school board’s attorney from Harrison–based firm Ingerman Smith, has hired his own lawyer, Ronald Wade Weiner of Steinberg & Cavaliere, to defend himself against the charges.

On Monday, April 28, the Board of Education called a special meeting for the next day to discuss litigation and other matters, presumably with plans to discuss Coppola’s sign-on to the Mehler suit.

Silverman, who represents all defendants except Mountanos, declined to comment on the matter.

While no damages are being sought from the school district as a whole, the teachers are also suing former school board member Kendall Egan and former Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Dr. Mary Ann Evangelist.

Board of Education member Ed Fox, who has made public statements criticizing the board’s handling of the issue, is the only current board member who is not named in the lawsuit.

In response to the news Coppola is joining Mehler’s lawsuit, the Rye Board of Education stated that it did not have anything to say by way of reaction, referring back to its original response, in which it deemed Mehler’s complaints illogical, baseless and without merit, stating they are “designed to coerce the board to ignore the allegations and return the teachers to the classroom.”

Coppola’s affidavit alleges she has been subjected to a form of coercion by the board itself.

“I believe that keeping me in this limbo status for a period of up to three years is being done in order to either coerce my resignation or to coerce me to admit a wrongful act, which I will not do,” she said.

The board has repeatedly said it acted in full compliance with state laws and regulations throughout the teacher investigation matter and referred to the settlements with Gold and Topol, reached earlier this year, as evidence of progress on the matter.

Gold, a fourth grade Milton School teacher, resigned in January, admitting no wrongdoing, while Topol, a third grade Osborn School teacher, who also admitted no wrongdoing, returned to the classroom in February after paying the district a $2,500 fine.

CONTACT: liz@hometwn.com

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About Liz Button

Liz Button is a staff reporter for Hometown Media Group’s The Rye Sound Shore Review. Previously, she covered Bedford and Mount Kisco for The Daily Voice, an Internet-based, hyperlocal publication. She’s also written for Patch in her hometown of Trumbull, Conn., as a freelance reporter and fill-in editor. Preceding her time there, she worked in publishing in New York City. She is a 2008 graduate of Bowdoin College with a degree in English. Reach Liz at 914-653-1000 x20 or liz@hometwn.com; follow her on Twitter @ryesoundshore.