Published: April 3, 2014
Publication: The Rye City Review
By Liz Button
Fourth grade Osborn School teacher Carin Mehler has filed suit against six of the seven members of the Rye City School District Board of Education, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Frank Alvarez and several members of the district’s administration and staff, becoming the first teacher to take legal action against the district almost a year after she and three other district elementary school teachers were removed from their classrooms for alleged “improper coaching” during state tests.
Mehler is also suing former board member Kendall Egan, former Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Dr. Mary Ann Evangelist, Osborn School Principal Angela Garcia as well as the school board’s hired attorney Gus Mountanos, seeking $1 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages from the defendants.
No damages are being sought from the school district as a whole, according to Manhattan-based civil rights lawyer Arthur Schwartz, who Mehler retained after she and three others were reassigned in May 2013.
Schwartz said the school district violated Mehler’s rights under the due process clause of the 5th and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution, depriving her of her right to a job and of her reputation without due process of law.
The board’s response, disseminated on March 27 in the hours after the suit was filed, maintains Mehler’s claims that her civil rights have been violated are designed to coerce the board to ignore the testing allegations and return her to the classroom.
“While counsel for this plaintiff may be frustrated at the lack of resolution to date, we find it grossly irresponsible to have taken the extreme position of filing an illogical and baseless claim,” the board’s statement read.
Mehler’s attorney alleges there is coercion on the board’s part.
Of the three other teachers initially accused, the Board of Education has reached settlements with two of them, citing these agreements as evidence of progress in its March 27 statement.
Fourth grade Milton School teacher Shannon Gold resigned in January, admitting no wrongdoing, while third-grade Osborn School teacher Gail Topol returned to the classroom in February. She also admitted no wrongdoing, but paid the district a $2,500 fine.
Schwartz claims school board attorney Mountanos has routinely employed coercion to try to get him, as Mehler’s counsel, to “make a proposal” to resolve the situation, a directive that Schwartz, who also represents Dana Coppola, the other teacher who remains out of her classroom on reassignment, takes to mean agreeing to a plea deal that will expedite the teachers’ return to work.
Schwartz made his last “proposal” to get the teachers back in the classroom without necessitating legal action in February, which was to let the teachers return to the classroom or face a lawsuit, but Mountanos rejected it out of hand.
Schwartz said the school district has pushed his client to the brink.
After 11 months, Mehler and Coppola have still not been charged with anything and the district has presented no evidence.
Ally of the teachers and former Osborn School principal Clarita Zeppie said, “There is only so much [Mehler] can be expected to take before she takes an action. They have pushed her into it. It is a shame. I give her credit for waiting this long.”
All Mehler has ever wanted is to return to the classroom and teaching and continue doing what she loves, Zeppie said.
Schwartz said Coppola is considering her options and, over the next few weeks, he will file a motion for preliminary injunction, to which Coppola could attach her name.
Meanwhile, in a March 21 email addressed to the school board and Superintendent Alvarez prior to the suit being filed, Rye Teachers Association President Jaime Zung said it was becoming more and more difficult, after almost a year has gone by, for the union to continue to remain silent as it continues to believe, Mehler and Coppola have done nothing wrong.
Zung said it was difficult for teachers to offer support for the board’s agenda when asked by board president Laura Slack and vice president Katy Glassberg at the union’s last general meeting.
Within the next several weeks he and other members of the union will be forced to address the board at a public session, Zung said.
Board member Ed Fox, who has made public statements about the ordeal dragging on too long, is the only current school board member who is not being sued.