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Rye teachers still in limbo over testing flap after five months; no scores for students

RYE — A lawyer for two of four Rye teachers who were removed from their classrooms in May amid allegations of improper coaching says inaction by the Board of Education is preventing the teachers from establishing their innocence and returning to school. Five months after the elementary school teachers were placed on administrative reassignment for “testing irregularities” during the April state tests — based on the new Common Core learning standards — the school board has yet to press charges. That means the teachers can’t demand a hearing.

“It has been hanging like a dark cloud over their heads,” said lawyer Arthur Schwartz. “The teachers want to go back to their classrooms.”

Legally, the board has six months to make a determination, said Schwartz.

Earlier this week, parents of students from the four classrooms learnedthat their children will not be receiving the results of the state assessments.

“The state Education Department has deemed all scores associated with the four teachers invalid,” Schools Superintendent Frank Alvarez wrote in a letter to parents.

The case is also under investigation by the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office.

Schwartz is representing Carin Mehler, a fourth-grade teacher at Osborn Elementary School, and Dana Coppola, a third-grade teacher at Milton Elementary School. The other two teachers are Gail Topol, who teaches third grade at Osborn, and Shannon Gold, who teaches fourth grade at Milton.

“They (the teachers) are very upset. Mrs. Mehler has a child in the school where she was teaching, and that is causing her additional stress,” said Schwartz. “They believe the allegations are from one parent who was concerned their child would do too well, and wouldn’t be eligible for special services they were seeking from the district.”

Alvarez said he couldn’t discuss details of the case.

“This matter continues to be an ongoing investigation,” the superintendent said. “As it is a personnel matter, the district is precluded from discussing details. We will share information as able and when a resolution is reached.”

The district sent out a letter to the community May 24 saying it had been informed of a possible “testing irregularity” by a parent. “As soon as this allegation was brought to the district’s attention, district officials immediately filed a report with the state Education Department and began an internal investigation on May 7,” it said.

While that letter said “a” parent prompted the investigation, school board President Laura Slack said during a Sep. 10 meeting that “several parents and children came forward with allegations regarding the administration of the tests.”

“The district conducted a preliminary investigation and found enough reason to believe the allegations are sufficiently credible,” Slack said.

Parents have been a constant presence at school board meetings since May, defending the well-liked, longtime teachers and criticizing the district’s handling of the case. A petition started by Osborne parents asking the district to reinstate their teachers has more than 117 signatures.

Many parents say the district mishandled the investigation by improperly questioning 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds weeks after the tests were administered.

“My child felt extremely responsible,” said Caroline Logan. “The children were all confused about why their teacher was pulled out suddenly and if it was because of something they said.”

Logan said the district was not forthcoming with reasons for interviewing the children, and that parents were led to believe it was going to be only about the new tests.

Others bemoan the additional tax burden of supporting four leave replacements while the teachers continue to get paid their full salary.

“The board should either file charges or drop the investigation, so the tax money of Rye residents is not spent without ground,” said Boukje van den Bosch-Smits, whose daughter was in Mehler’s class. “There is no allegation of actual cheating. And remember, it was the decision of the district to have teachers proctoring their own classes.”

Shelley Karlen, a retired teacher who currently doesn’t have children in the district, said it was impossible to come to a fair conclusion on the investigation based on the testimony of elementary school kids.

“What do they call helping? Is telling third graders how to fill in the bubble sheet cheating?,” asked Karlen. “There is a level of fear with the new testing. The administration was grandstanding by calling the Westchester DA, and to me, it smacks of a witch hunt.”

Last month, the Peekskill school district settled with three of four guidance counselors who were accused of handing out credits to students for phony courses. A fourth counselor resigned earlier this year and was not part of the settlement. The transcript scandal broke in January when school officials said at least 34 seniors received credits for a “co-op” class, which was discontinued years ago. Both the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office and the state Education Department are investigating the case.


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