By LIZ BUTTON
Less than a week after she joined fellow reassigned teacher Carin Mehler’s lawsuit against members of the Rye City School District Board of Education, third grade Milton School teacher Dana Coppola was suspended with pay and brought up on disciplinary charges.
Coppola, a tenured teacher since 2000, has 10 days to respond to the 10 charges leveled against her on May 1. She, Mehler and two other elementary school teachers were removed from their classrooms after a parent raised concerns in May 2013 which led to accusations the teachers “improperly coached” students on state math and English Language Arts tests that April.
If Coppola does not request a hearing within the 10-day period, the board may implement a penalty, which can include termination of employment.
Coppola is expected to file for a hearing this week, according to her attorney.
Once her request is made, both sides will get a list of arbitrators and can make selections for a three-person panel, which will decide on the merits of each charge and determine whether any penalty should be imposed by the board. This penalty can include anything from a written reprimand to outright termination.
Manhattan-based civil rights attorney Arthur Schwartz, who represents both Coppola and Mehler, said he thinks the
timing of the charges was not a coincidence; the board’s 6 to 1 vote to allow the superintendent to take disciplinary action was definitely spurred by Coppola adding her name to the Mehler lawsuit. Coppola joined that suit on April 25.
Board member Edward Fox was the lone dissenting vote during an April 29 executive session when the board decided to charge Coppola. Fox has spoken out against the board’s handling of the case and is the only current board member who is not named in Mehler and Coppola’s lawsuit.
Superintendent Dr. Frank Alvarez officially administered the series of 10 charges under state education law 3020-a, which describes the procedures by which tenured teachers may be disciplined by their district.
Schwartz said the addition of 2011 as another possible date of the alleged incidents of “improper coaching” perplexed him.
According to the charges filed with the New York State Education Department, incidents occurred in Coppola’s classroom in both May 2011 and April 2013.
According to the charges, which were obtained by the Review, Coppola assisted a student and/or students in answering test questions, gave hints or clues to students, advised a student or students to monitor or review certain answers, explained test questions to students, and assisted students in altering their responses on testing dates “in 2011 and/or 2013.”
The district also alleges Coppola swore to a false statement when she affirmed, in the form all testing proctors are required to complete, the test had been administered properly.
“It was more like the same charge restated 10 different ways,” Schwartz said, adding he and his clients were surprised Mehler was not charged at the same time.
Mehler filed suit against six of the seven members of the Board of Education, Alvarez and several district administration and staff members on March 27;,but is yet to be charged by the school district.
“One of the things we’re very upset about is the vagueness of the charges; we don’t have a date or the name of who it is she allegedly gave an answer to,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz argues that, while the statute of limitations on levying charges against a teacher is three years according to state education law, reassigning a teacher for a year or more was not what was envisioned by the statute that gives the district that right.
He said Coppola believes the 2011 tests occurred earlier than May, which places that incident outside of the three-year statute of limitations.
“One of the other problems here is that the witnesses were, if this were in 2011, in third grade. They would have been 8 or 9 and would now be 11 or 12,” Schwartz said. “[It’s not realistic] for an 11 year old to remember what they did a year ago or even five minutes ago.”
When the Review filed a Freedom of Information Law request for the charges, the district denied the request on the grounds that “the disclosure of disciplinary records for any district employee would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
The district further declined to answer any questions about the matter.
Since the testing controversy began in May 2013, district officials have claimed they have abided by all state Education Department regulations and state law in their handling of this case, and said both teachers’ accusations are spurious.
While Schwartz and his client are currently confused about what exactly the charges are, they will know more on May 8, after press time, the date the school board is legally allowed to respond to the suit’s claims.
The other two teachers, Shannon Gold and Gail Topol, have already reached agreements with the district, although neither were required to admit wrongdoing. Gold, a fourth grade Milton School teacher resigned in January. Topol went back to her job as a third grade Osborn School teacher in February after paying a $2,500 fine.