School board elaborates on teacher allegations

By LIZ BUTTON

After a year of silence and now facing a $4 million civil rights lawsuit, Rye City School District Board of Education members addressed the allegations of “improper coaching” against the four elementary school teachers reassigned to home last May in a court filing last week.

In a request to dismiss the suit filed against it by two of the teachers—Osborn School fourth grade teacher Carin Mehler and Milton School third grade teacher Dana Coppola—the board alleged that, in interviews with former Superintendent of Curriculum Dr. Mary Anne Evangelist, at least four students testified Mehler told them to change certain answers on the 2013 state math and English Language Arts tests.

According to the board’s memorandum, students testified that Mehler told them to add more details to their answers, to make essays longer and to explain things better, and that they did not need to use a protractor on certain questions. The board filed its memorandum to oppose the teachers’ preliminary injunction, which asked the court to prevent the board from hiring two new temporary leave replacement teachers for next year.

The  opposition memorandum, which was filed May 8 by the board’s counsel, Lewis Silverman of Manhattan-based law firm Rutherford & Christie, went on to state at least five students who were in Coppola’s class testified that, on state tests in 2011 and 2013, their teacher told them to change certain answers and raise their hands so she could check their answers again, assisted them with spelling on tests and gave them additional information about certain math questions.

For the past year, the board has claimed it was not allowed to speak publicly about the investigation due to state educational regulations regarding teacher disciplinary procedures, but now they are legally obliged to defend themselves after being served with the lawsuit.

The memorandum was also accompanied by sworn affidavits from four of the defendants in the suit—Osborn School Principal Angela Garcia, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Frank Alvarez, Milton School Principal Dr. Joanne Nardone and Gus Mountanos, the board’s attorney on retainer—that backed-up the board’s version of events.

School board member Edward Fox, who has spoken out against the district’s handling of the matter, is the only current member of the board who was not named in the lawsuit.

Civil rights attorney Arthur Schwartz, who represents Mehler and Coppola, said any of the incidents alleged in the defendants’ affidavits, if they happened, only occurred on practice tests. He said any testimony by the young students in this case is likely to be inaccurate due to the amount of time that has elapsed. Calling the allegations “preposterous,” Schwartz said looking back, it is likely students would not be able to tell whether what they remember occurred during a practice test or the real test, whether it was in May of 2011  or April of 2013.

The board’s response purports to provide evidence that supports the 10 charges of “improper coaching” Coppola received from the district on May 1, a week after she joined the lawsuit Mehler filed on March 27. At that time, the district suspended Coppola with pay in accordance with the state’s guidelines.

Schwartz filed a request last week for a hearing in front of a state Education Department-vetted professional arbitrator. If Coppola does not request such a hearing, the board has the right to fire her or exact some other disciplinary penalty upon her. If, as a result of the hearing, arbitrators find Coppola guilty of all or some of the charges, they can exact a penalty that the board is required to carry out, which can be anything from a written reprimand to termination.

The district has not yet leveled any charges against Mehler.

“That is probably the reason they haven’t moved forward with any charges against Carin [Mehler] and haven’t been more specific with the Coppola charges; it’s because they know the testimony the kids gave is extremely unclear,” Schwartz said.

The board’s response runs counter to his assertion. It states children interviewed gave “detailed examples” of ways Mehler and Coppola coached them.

Schwartz said he also takes issue with the board’s assertion that Mehler attempted to exclude the student who brought the charges from classroom activities and denied, as they were accused of in the initial complaint, that Mehler was kept off of school grounds by the administration.

“They are trying to paint Carin Mehler as some kind of retaliatory menace,” he said, when that is just not the case.

In a May 9 statement, the board stated its members regret this detailed information has come out at all. It had been the board’s goal from the start, it said, to preserve the privacy and dignity of all involved.

“We would be remiss if we did not point out that we have done all within our power to protect the privacy of the plaintiffs, and it is only due to their lawsuit that the unfortunate details of this matter have become public,” the board’s statement said.

The two other teachers allegedly involved—Milton fourth grade teacher Shannon Gold and Osborn third grade teacher Gail Topol—already reached settlements with the district earlier this year. Gold resigned in January. In February, Topol returned to the classroom after paying a fine. Both admitted no wrongdoing.

Board of Education president Laura Slack could not be reached for comment as of press time.

CONTACT: liz@hometwn.com