By LIZ BUTTON
Gail Topol, one of four elementary school teachers suspended eight months ago after being accused of “improperly coaching” students on state tests, has signed a settlement agreement with the Rye City School District to return to the classroom, but at a special Board of Education meeting called for the morning of Jan. 27, one board member was ready to postpone the impending vote.
Board member Edward Fox expressed concerns that, given the circumstances of the negotiations, the public might be inclined to suspect the proposed agreement was a “sweetheart deal” involving board President Laura Slack, the wife of appointed Rye City Councilman Richard Slack, and Kerri Ann Law, wife of Republican Mayor Joe Sack, who represented Topol in negotiations.
Fox’s statements were swiftly repudiated by the mayor and board president and criticized further at a regularly scheduled school board meeting the following night as past and present board members, and some community members, showed up to speak on behalf of Laura Slack and to champion the integrity of the board’s decision-making process.
In his comments at the Jan. 27 special meeting, Fox said the appearance of impropriety stems from the mayor’s consideration, and ultimate appointment, of Richard Slack to the City Council while, at the same time, negotiations between Sack’s wife, as Topol’s lawyer, which directly or indirectly involved Laura Slack, were ongoing. At no time, Fox said, were school board members made aware of these circumstances.
Fox urged Laura Slack to recuse herself from participation in any further discussion or action concerning any of the suspended teachers and suggested the vote on the agreement be tabled pending an independent investigation into the negotiations that preceded it.
“If this agreement is approved under these circumstances, the public will be left to wonder if the employee was unfairly held hostage, at significant expense to the district, until a particular benefit was provided,” he said.
The school board approved the agreement that morning by a margin of six votes to zero, with Fox abstaining.
Topol, a third grade teacher at Osborn School, along with Osborn fourth grade teacher Carin Mehler, Milton School fourth grade teacher Shannon Gold, and Dana Coppola, who teaches third grade at Milton, were accused of improper coaching while proctoring state tests administered in April 2013 after a parent brought forth allegations that May.
Ten days prior to the approval of the Topol settlement, on Jan. 17, Gold, the only one of the four tenured teachers to be charged by the district, was the first teacher to conclude her ordeal by signing a resignation agreement with the school board in which neither party admitted any wrongdoing. The other two teachers remain suspended with pay.
Mayor Sack responded to Fox’s statement in a speech delivered at the Jan. 29 City Council meeting. He said there is no conflict of interest, nor even the appearance of a conflict of interest, since the issue involves separate and unrelated circumstances to which he was not privy.
Sack said he took exception to Fox’s statement that “other similarly situated [district] employees will wonder if they are being treated different because they have a different lawyer who cannot deliver a City Council seat or some other benefit to a board member or the board member’s family members.”
According to Sack, while Fox’s statement contained many hypothetical suppositions and scenarios, this particular part was a concrete allegation; essentially, Sack said, Fox is accusing him of a felony.
“I never had any communications with Kerri about the substance of her representation of her client, and I certainly never had any communications with Kerri—express, implied or otherwise—about exchanging a settlement in the Topol matter for a council seat for Richard Slack,” Sack said Wednesday night.
Sack led the “Rye United” Republican ticket that swept into office in the November 2013 elections on a platform of bringing increased transparency and accountability to city government, which had been rocked in 2013 by a financial scandal at the Rye Golf Club, a conflict of interest pertaining to a police uniform bid alleged to be compromised by the involvement of an auxiliary police officer, and the hiring of non-profit International City/County Management Association to aid in the city’s search for a new police commissioner.
Sack was the initiator of the latter becoming an issue, calling out City Manager Scott Pickup back in December for failing to disclose that he was a member of ICMA; the city manager had recommended the firm to the City Council.
Sack has stated that an appearance of a conflict of interest is as egregious as a real conflict of interest, given the climate of scandal in which the city has been embroiled in over the past two years.
Sack’s runningmate, Councilwoman Julie Killian, a Republican, said she did not know Sack’s wife Kerri Ann Law represented Topol during the period preceding Richard Slack’s appointment. However, Killian affirmed she fully supports Richard Slack’s appointment and stands behind her vote for him.
“I reject any notion of a special deal or quid pro quo between the Slack and Sack families. I am equally outraged by Mr. Fox’s suggestion that members of both the school board and the City Council can somehow be bought,” she added.
At the regularly scheduled school board meeting on Jan. 28, Councilman Terry McCartney, a Republican who took office this year, asserted it was he, not Joe Sack, who proposed Richard Slack for the spot, all the while totally unaware that Sack’s wife was representing Topol.
“Joe Sack is an honorable person. He constantly…for the past six or seven months since I have gotten involved in Rye politics, goes out of his way to avoid the appearance of impropriety, beyond what I think is necessary in many instances,” McCartney, who also ran on the Rye United ticket with Sack, said.
Laura Slack also responded to what she called Fox’s “outrageous allegations without one shred of proof that anything unethical or improper occurred,” stating the board was fully informed of all developments related to the negotiations and acted properly in approving the settlement. She said she has conducted herself with propriety and in compliance with board policy at all times.
In the course of his Jan. 27 statement, Fox suggested that Board Policy 2160 “Disclosure of Interest and Actions of the Board of Education” may have been violated.
The policy states that, a Board of Education member, or any school district employee who participates in a discussion or gives an official opinion to the board on any resolution or action before the board shall go on the record regarding any direct or indirect financial or private interest he or she may have, to the best of his or her knowledge.
Laura Slack’s statement was supported by Superintendent Dr. Frank Alvarez, as well as the other five Board of Education members, each of whom made his or her own statement repudiating Fox’s Jan. 27 remarks and affirming the non-biased decision-making process of the board and of themselves as individual members.
Members of the community and former board members, like former board president Josh Nathan, also came to the podium to proclaim support of Slack and to refute Fox’s Jan. 27 statement.
But according to Fox, the show of support for Laura Slack at Tuesday’s school board meeting was an orchestrated affair and invitations were extended to Slack’s friends and colleagues.
“They put on a show rather than to actually address the facts,” Fox said. “There is no exception in the policy for a board member in these circumstances who shows up with testimonials or character witnesses to excuse them. The board member can be as honest as the day is long but in the circumstances, the policy says this is [what you do].”
Fox said he initially brought up his concern because, regardless of how he feels about the situation with the suspended teachers, he is concerned with how the board does business.
“[This issue] happens to laterally and coincidentally have an impact on the city…Elected officials are supposed to do their business in public and, to my mind, this is an issue that affects the public that was brought to my attention,” he said
The district has not publicly commented on Topol’s settlement, except to state that the two parties have reached an amicable resolution, but both Topol and the district “have agreed not to comment upon the matter further.”
The Rye City Review filed a Freedom of Information Law request for the Topol agreement on Jan. 27 but, as of press time, has not yet received a copy of the document.