Published: January 8, 2015
By Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy
Teacher Carin Mehler talks about being removed from her classroom for allegations of “improper coaching.” No formal charges have been brought against her and she continues to receive her full salary and benefits. Joe Larese/The Journal News
Almost two years after Carin Mehler was removed from her Rye classroom over allegations of “improper coaching” in a state exam, the Osborn School teacher says she still doesn’t know what she’s accused of.
(Photo: Joe Larese/The Journal News)
RYE – Almost two years after she was removed from the classroom for “improper coaching” during a state exam, a fourth-grade Osborn School teacher says she still doesn’t know what she’s accused of.
Carin Mehler is being paid $150,000 to $200,000 in salary and benefits while the Rye school district decides what formal charges to bring against her, said her lawyer, Arthur Schwartz. The lack of a charge has prevented the tenured teacher from having a state-required administrative hearing that will determine her future.
“I don’t know what I did wrong,” Mehler said in an exclusive interview with The Journal News, her first public statement since she and three other teachers were reassigned in May 2013. “They never questioned me, never asked me to explain anything. And I have no way of defending myself.”
In Mehler’s case, the district never clarified the allegation with a formal charge. For about a year, she was assigned to a room by herself, stacking books by grade level, in what the Rye Teachers Union called “solitary confinement.” This year, she’s been told to stay home during school hours and make fourth-grade lesson plans. Mehler said she doesn’t know whether the district uses any of her work.
“They don’t even acknowledge my emails,” she said.
Rye district spokeswoman Sarah Derman said Thursday she didn’t know when charges might be filed.
In the 2013-14 school year, after the four teachers were reassigned, the board contracted with four “leave-replacement” teachers at a total of $272,834, to fill their spots. By September, the district had settled with the other reassigned teachers.
Asked how much was being spent to fill Mehler’s spot this school year, Derman said it was not a “seat for seat exchange per se” but that the annual average salary of the leave replacements at Osborn is about $68,000, plus the cost of health insurance.
Though the district hasn’t filed formal charges, it did respond to Mehler’s federal lawsuitlast year, saying a parent expressed concern about her child receiving help during the state assessments. The district also claimed at least four students gave specific, detailed examples of Mehler assisting them.
“Mehler reviewed the students’ answers and suggested to students that they may want to change their answers, told students to add more detail to their answers and to check spelling, capitals and punctuations, told students to make their essays longer and explain things better, told students they did not need a protractor for questions and told students they did not need to measure to answer certain questions,” the district said.
Mehler denied the allegation.
“I have always followed the testing protocol strictly,” she said, adding that it was ludicrous to think that 9-year-olds interviewed days after the alleged incident could be accurate, particularly when they had taken a slew of practice tests before the actual state exam.
Rye Teachers Union President Jamie Zung said last year that Superintendent Frank Alvarez tried to persuade parents to let their children be interviewed almost a year after the alleged incident.
In New York City, teachers must be formally charged under section 3020-a within 60 days of being reassigned for misconduct. For the rest of the state, districts have three years to bring charges, Schwartz said.
“They could not treat Carin this way in New York City,” he said.
Mehler, a North Rockland High School graduate who grew up in Thiells, said the episode had taken a toll on her family and parents.
“My mother lives in Rockland and my mother-in-law lives in New Rochelle. It is embarrassing for all of us,” she said, adding that the situation has caused a lot of anxiety for her youngest daughter, a fifth-grader at Osborn. “Teaching is all I know. I miss it so much. My biggest career goal was to be named ‘Teacher of the Year,’ and to think that I might never teach again is heartbreaking. They can keep me out of the classroom forever if they want.”
Boukje van den Bosch-Smits, an Osborn parent who has been a champion of Mehler’s, regularly demands answers at school board meetings.
“They are dumping our money into the ocean and keeping a great teacher away from her classroom,” she said.
Shannon Gold, a fourth-grade teacher at Milton School who had been reassigned, resigned last January. Gail Topol, a third-grade teacher at Osborn, returned to the classroom in February after paying a $2,500 fine and converting 27 days of her administrative reassignment to a paid suspension. Dana Coppola, who returned to the classroom in September, was fined $18,000 in a settlement involving formal charges of 10 counts of “misconduct and neglect of duty.”
Coppola, a third-grade teacher at Milton, had been part of Mehler’s federal and state lawsuits but dropped out as part of her settlement. The state case was dismissed last month.
Mehler said the district’s delaying tactics aim to coerce her into a settlement but that she won’t back down. Topol and Coppola agreed to pay fines in exchange for being reinstated, she said, but she won’t consider that option.
“I am not paying a dime for something I didn’t do,” Mehler said.