Union president: Teachers are innocent

Rye Teachers Association president Jaime Zung breaks his silence, addressing the school board on Tuesday in defense of the two remaining reassigned teachers.

Rye Teachers Association president Jaime Zung breaks his silence, addressing the school board on Tuesday in defense of the two remaining reassigned teachers.

By LIZ BUTTON
After a year of relative silence on the matter, Rye’s teachers union made itself seen and heard at the April 8 Board of Education meeting on the issue of the district’s four reassigned elementary school teachers, who were removed from their classrooms last May after being accused of “improper coaching” during state tests in April.

More than 100 teachers from Milton and Osborn elementary schools, as well as teachers and union representatives from Midland School, the middle school and high school, were present at the meeting in addition to parents from Osborn and Milton.

“For almost a year, I have resisted requests from the RTA to make a public statement. For almost a year, I have allowed the RTA to appear apathetic and weak in the public eye. For almost a year, I have maintained hope that the process would work,” Rye Teachers Association president Jaime Zung said Tuesday. “But after a year, you have failed to settle this case so I, and we, are here tonight.”

Zung said he and his fellow teachers believe the allegations to be baseless, resulting from easily explainable circumstances that have been misinterpreted or taken out of context. He said he initially believed the district was doing what it was obligated to do in the case and, although it was contrary to what the majority of the union wanted, he recommended teachers respect the process and let it play out.

Carin Mehler Photos/Andrew Dapolite

Carin Mehler
Photos/Andrew Dapolite

Since the controversy began last year, the school district has maintained it is actively trying to resolve the situation, working with the state Education Department, which district officials said takes accusations of cheating very seriously, every step of the way.

On Tuesday night, teachers approached the podium during public comment individually and in small groups, imploring the district to resolve the situation. Teachers also praised one of the two teachers who remain reassigned, Milton third grade teacher Dana Coppola, who wept as she heard her colleagues, including Milton first grade teacher Karen Kozan and third grade teacher Allison Bily,  expound on her compassion, commitment and professional qualities.

Osborn fourth grade teacher Carin Mehler’s talent, capability and dedication have been lauded at length by Osborn parents at previous board meetings.

Since the case broke, only one of the four reassigned teachers, Shannon Gold, a fourth grade teacher at Milton, has been charged by the school district. She resigned in January after signing a deal in which neither party admitted wrongdoing.

One of the night’s most applauded speakers was Milton School second grade teacher Katy Ridley, who spoke as a Rye City taxpayer, a former student in the school system, a future district parent and the daughter of former board president Bob Connor.

She lamented the deterioration of the relationship between the teachers and the board, which she said she and many teachers have perceived over the past year.

“Please help us go back to the time when teachers, parents and board members all worked together, united in our quest to provide Rye students with the best possible education,” she said.

“Our colleagues, people just like us, in one questionable moment, went from being highly respected to suspected. I’m horrified that my friends and colleagues had their reputations ruined. I hear my neighbors in this wonderful community speak negatively about these women based on rumors that they are hearing, and I’m sickened.”

As at past meetings, due to legal considerations, members of the board and Superintendent Dr. Frank Alvarez declined to respond to Tuesday night’s speakers.

Following the meeting, board president Laura Slack told the Rye City Review the board respects the right of the faculty to come and share their thoughts.

“We listened to each speaker at the podium very carefully and we respect their feelings. We, too, hope to resolve the remaining matters,” she said.

Mehler recently took the first legal action leveled since the start of the issue, suing the superintendent, six of the seven school board members, the board’s attorney and several administrators on the grounds that her civil rights were violated.

With Tuesday night’s rally, Zung made good on his promise in a Jan. 14 letter to board members and the superintendent, to bring the teachers union to speak in front of the board. Zung sent two letters, on Jan. 14 and March 21, and said he has had multiple conversations with Alvarez in an attempt to resolve the
situation.

When the allegations came to light in May 2013, the school district sent a letter describing the circumstances to the Westchester County District Attorney’s office and the state Education Department, the latter of which is still reviewing the case, according to the school board.

In October 2013, the district attorney’s office said there was insufficient evidence to further investigate the case as a criminal matter.

In February 2014, after Gold struck a deal with the
district, Gail Topol, a third grade teacher at Osborn, negotiated a deal to return to the classroom in which she paid a fine but also admitted no wrongdoing.

At Tuesday night’s meeting, Meghan Donovan, a kindergarten teacher at Milton School, spoke for the teachers when she said she would not have blamed Coppola if she thought she had been forgotten.

“I am here tonight to make it plain that I have not forgotten her. I admire her courage, her ability to bend but not break under the pressure of this situation,” Donovan said.

Donovan, describing Coppola as a “master teacher,” said she believes her faith in the leaders of the school district to make the situation right has not been misplaced.

“I, along with my colleagues, have been silent until now because we hoped and believed that the leaders in this district would eventually stand behind the talented and dedicated teachers in their employ. I still have faith that that can happen,” she said.

 CONTACT: liz@hometwn.com