By LIZ BUTTON
In a dusty, book-crammed 10-by-9-foot room at the Rye School of Leadership, the four suspended teachers from Osborn and Milton schools have received full-time pay for the last three weeks to put grade-level stickers on textbooks.
For the past six months, the Rye City School District has been in stasis when it comes to deciding the fate of the teachers, who were removed from the classroom in May after a parent came forward with accusations of “improper coaching” regarding state assessment tests conducted in April.
To date, the teachers have yet to return to their classrooms.
“I just want to teach. I want my life back. I want to feel like I used to,” one of the four teachers told The Rye City Review in an exclusive interview, who did not give her name for fear of retaliation by the school district. “I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since May. It has been humiliating.”
The administration’s tough stance and lack of communication has been difficult for the four teachers. One of them said that those of the four who have hired legal counsel say their lawyers have had difficulty getting in touch with the district.
“To be honest, I’ve already spent money [on a lawyer] and I’m still feeling the effect. We really got nowhere. Some days I wake up and think, ‘We have to go after them, we have to go to court.’ I guess I have gone back and forth,” the teacher said.
As the teachers sit in limbo, the district said it continues to seek a solution, whether that means charging the teachers with an official offense or not.
“The district’s and the state [Education Department’s] investigation is still ongoing. Notwithstanding the foregoing, we are actively seeking resolution of the matter,” the district’s administration said.
In the meantime, one of the four reassigned teachers said she does not expect any of them will be charged by the district but, even if they are, she is “100 percent fighting” to keep her job despite the district’s treatment of her and her colleagues.
Recently, the Westchester County District Attorney’s office announced it would not charge the teachers from Osborn and Milton schools with any legal infraction allegedly perpetrated during the spring math and English language arts tests in question.
In addition to the DA, the school district also notified the state Education Department after the allegations were brought forward, but that department’s investigation has also failed, so far, to bring charges against the teachers.
The four tenured teachers, who were first informed of the allegations on May 20 by Schools Superintendent Dr. Frank Alvarez, received a letter in August informing them they had been “administratively reassigned to home” until further notice.
While the teachers began the school year on Sept. 9 doing curriculum work on a computer program called Rubicon Atlas, by the end of October, they were assigned to their current “rubber room” circumstances at the district’s alternative school.
According to one of the accused teachers, when new curriculum superintendent Dr. Betty Ann Wyks came by to check on the teachers in their tightly-confined quarters and saw that they appeared visibly upset, she allegedly told them, “You may not like this, but you have to suck it up.”
Rubber rooms were a phenomenon of the New York City public school system that became commonplace several years ago. The term refers to the holding rooms for New York City teachers who are accused of misconduct and subsequently assigned, for weeks, months and even years, to sit and wait until their cases are resolved, working on assigned tasks while getting paid their full-time salaries.
The practice gained notoriety and subsequently ended in 2010, but accused teachers are now reassigned to a room within their own schools, rather than to large rooms filled with teachers from across the city school district.
At this point, according to Osborn teachers Carin Mehler and Gail Topol and Milton teachers, Shannon Gold and Dana Coppola, the teachers still do not know what the specific allegations are against them beyond the term “improper coaching.”
When apprised of the teachers’ current assignment at Rye’s alternative school, located on Midland Avenue next to Midland Elementary School, the district responded that, without specifically commenting on the “four teachers in question…at this time, all of our teachers have been provided with job responsibilities and/or assignments that fall within their applicable tenure areas. The [Board of Education] is apprised of all staff assignments.”
Parents of the affected students, especially at Osborn, have been supportive of the teachers, who were administratively reassigned over the summer. Parents waged email and letter campaigns and attended school board meetings in force to speak in support of the teachers.
Last week, Kristina Spinola, who has two sons at Osborn School, said she is not optimistic about justice for the teachers.
“If the school board decided this is how they’re going to handle it, then there’s not much we can do as taxpayers,” she said.
Osbron parent Aviva Kamander takes an equally dim view.
“We’d like some expediency. What’s the reason why it can’t be resolved?” said Kamander, whose husband, Eric, started an online petition to reinstate the teachers that garnered 117 signatures. “We felt like we’re a community together. Why are we in the dark?”
According to one of the four teachers, while it is possible some board members might want to try to work out a settlement that would get the teachers back in the classroom, there have been no overtures of that nature from either the board or the district.
The school board’s intractability on the matter will not be without consequences down the line, if only in the area of public perception, which will make it harder for board president Laura Slack and the rest of the board to get future budget and educational initiatives passed, she claimed.
-With reporting by Katie Hoos