By LIZ BUTTON
One of the four elementary school teachers suspended from their jobs in May 2013 has resigned from the Rye City School District following an eight-month suspension over allegations of “improper coaching” on state tests.
At a special Board of Education meeting on Friday, Jan. 17, the board approved a settlement between fourth-grade Milton School teacher Shannon Gold, the board and Superintendent Dr. Frank Alvarez. The meeting took place behind the closed doors of executive session in the district’s administrative offices located on Theall Road.
The four tenured teachers—Gold and Dana Coppola, who teaches third grade at Milton School, along with Gail Topol, a third-grade teacher, and Carin Mehler a fourth-grade teacher from Osborn School—were suspended from their classrooms last May when a parent alleged her child had been coached on one of the state tests.
In October 2013, the Westchester District Attorney’s office, informed of the case in May, announced it would not file criminal charges against the teachers due to “insufficient evidence.” The State Education Department was also informed of the allegations at the time, but has not responded.
The first and only teacher to be brought up on charges by the board so far, Gold was charged with at least 10 offenses in November 2013, although sources close to Gold say neither she nor her legal counsel has received further information or evidence related to the charges since then.
The resignation agreement, approved Jan. 17 by the Board of Education, becomes effective on Jan. 31 and provides that, until that time, Gold will receive her regular salary and benefits. She will also receive health insurance coverage until April 30.
The resignation agreement also dictates that Gold, who said she does not want to comment on her resignation at this time when contacted by the Rye City Review, is not permitted to seek employment with the district in the future and that she agrees not to sue the district; likewise, the district agrees not to sue her. In the agreement, neither party admits guilt or wrongdoing.
The agreement also stipulates that Gold’s personnel file be expunged.
Even though she no longer lives in Rye, former Osborn principal Clarita Zeppie has been following the case by keeping in touch with her friends in the city, including both teachers and parents. She said she is disappointed in Gold’s decision.
“I hope that her choice will not affect the chances of the other three to be reinstated,” she said.
District spokesperson Karina Stabile said the district chooses not to comment on the resignation agreement. Beyond that, the district continues to stand by its statement that “[it] is actively trying to resolve the matter,” Stabile said.
Gold and the board entered into the agreement at this time, according to the settlement document, because “[both] parties are desirous of resolving their differences and avoiding prolonged litigation” in order to circumvent “attorneys’ fees and other expenses that will result from continued litigation.”
According to the Rye City School District policy handbook, employees must give 30 days’ notice if they wish to resign, but the board may waive that requirement at its discretion. According to this policy, Gold had the choice of continuing to receive her full salary until 30 days before the end of the school year if she planned to resign. Gold chose to leave her position at the end of this month, an unexpected choice since that means she will be forgoing months of salary she could have received had she remained on the payroll.
While still being paid their regular salaries, the four teachers were reassigned to home in May and, that October, reassigned again to a small room at the Rye School of Leadership to do various menial tasks.
Once charged, Gold was reassigned back to her home.
In the past few weeks, concern about the district’s expenses have become a foremost theme in public discussion, not just those incurred by continuing to pay the four teachers their regular salaries and paying thousands of dollars in legal fees, but by paying the salaries of the four leave-replacement teachers who took over in the classroom.
At the Board of Education’s Jan. 14 meeting, the four leave-replacement teachers’ salaries were approved for $34,000 for a second semester by a vote of 6 to 1, with board member Ed Fox opposing. For the first semester, the four leave replacement teachers were paid $136,417 in total.
Since the beginning, all board members have publicly stood behind president and spokesperson Laura Slack, and Alvarez has presented a united front with the board. But at the Jan. 14 meeting, Fox became the first board member to speak out against the continuation of the episode and read a statement to the audience.
“The district has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars paying experienced teachers to essentially do nothing while, at the same time, paying leave-replacement teachers tens of thousands of more dollars to cover their classes,” Fox said.
This is all at a time when the district’s budgeted expenditures exceed its revenues by more than $2 million, Fox said, so the district is spending money from reserves, which only worsens the budgeted deficit.
“In addition, the board has recently been advised that the district has reached the budgeted allowance for legal counsel for the entire year and it is only January,” Fox said.
But according to the district, less than 11 percent of the district’s $216,000 budget line item for attorney fees has to do with the testing irregularity matter.
Adding the board’s estimated amount of $23,760 in legal fees to the amount the board has authorized be paid for the leave-replacement teachers’ salaries for the year and the estimated total salary for the suspended teachers this school year—the district will spend at least three quarters of a million dollars from the time the teachers were suspended in May to the end of the 2013-2014 school year. This total of $750,000 or more does not include legal fees incurred from May—when the testing scandal broke—to September, which would be expenses included in the 2012-13 budget.
Retired Rye teacher of 30 years Shelley Karlen sent a letter to the Board of Education last week stating her disappointment not just with the expenses, but with the actions of the board and their consequences for the teachers.
“Beyond the expense that has been incurred, you have, unless this gets resolved without further retribution, destroyed the careers of four women,” Karlen wrote. “A resignation would be looked at with suspicion by any future educational employer; a change of career would carry questions as well.”
There are no winners in the situation, Karlen wrote, since teachers and others in the school community have expressed a loss of faith in the judgment of the board and the administration.
One of those teachers who has expressed a loss of faith in the system is Rye Teachers Association President Jaime Zung. The teachers’ union has remained notably silent through the eight months of the teachers’ ordeal. Zung, a science teacher at Rye High School, sent a letter to the board and the administration on Jan. 14 clarifying the meaning behind the union’s choices.
“Do not mistake silence for apathy…The RTA stands behind these teachers and supports them 100 percent,” Zung’s letter said.
Topol and Coppola could not be reached for comment, as of press time. Mehler declined comment.