At a special Rye City School Board meeting Monday morning, it was announced that the Board had reached an amicable resolution with Gail Topol, one of four teachers suspended last April after allegations of improper coaching during state assessment testing.
By Sarah Varney, with additional reporting by Robin Jovanovich
At a special Rye City School Board meeting January 28, it was announced that the Board had reached an amicable resolution with Gail Topol, one of four teachers suspended last April after allegations of improper coaching during state assessment testing.
But before the resolution to reinstate Topol came to a vote, Board member Ed Fox asked to table the resolution, and called for an independent investigation to be conducted.
“The agreement that the Board is being asked to approve was negotiated with the significant involvement, both direct and indirect, of Board President Laura Slack, and included direct and indirect contact between Mrs. Slack and the employee’s lawyer, Kerri Law,” began Fox.
“At the same time that these negotiations were ongoing, Kerri Law’s husband, newly elected mayor Joe Sack, was apparently considering and ultimately appointed to an open seat on the City Council Board President Laura Slack’s husband, Richard Slack.” (The Mayor nominated Richard Slack, along with Richard Mecca, to fill the open seats at the January 8 Council meeting and the Council unanimously approved the nominees.)
“At no time was the Board made aware of Mayor Sack’s consideration or appointment of Mr. Slack to the City Council seat while Board President Slack was involved in this matter with Mr. Sack’s wife.” (Fox later explained that he didn’t even know that Richard Slack had been appointed to the City Council until he read it in the paper.)
While Fox never accused any of the individuals involved with impropriety, he went on to say that, “At a minimum, there is a significant appearance of impropriety in connection with Mrs. Slack’s involvement and a possible violation of Board policy and/or law.”
Reading from sections of School Board Policy 2160, Fox said, “Any member of the Board or employee, paid or unpaid, who participates in the discussion or gives an official opinion to the Board of Ed on any resolution or action shall publicly disclose on the record the nature of any direct or indirect financial or other private interest he or she has in a resolution or action.” And further, “Any person who knowingly and intentionally violates Board policy may be fined, suspended, or removed from office.”
Even if there was no impropriety in the School Board’s negotiation of the settlement, said Fox, inferences can be drawn. In an interview with the paper Tuesday, Fox remarked, “The reason we have these Board policies is to prevent that exact thing from happening.”
Fox said, “If this agreement is approved under these circumstances, the public will be left to wonder if this was a ‘sweetheart deal’ or whether the employee was unfairly held hostage at significant expense to the District until a particular benefit was provided. Moreover, other similarly situated employees will wonder if they are being treated differently because they have a different lawyer who can not deliver a City Council seat or some other benefit to a board member or the board member’s family members.”
Fox urged Board President Slack to recuse herself, or be prohibited, if necessary, from participating in any further discussion of the teacher reassignment investigation.
In conclusion, Fox asked his fellow Board members to table the resolution. He further recommended that a complete and thorough investigation be conducted.
There was no second to his motion. And when the vote was called, six of the seven Board members voted to approve the resolution, Fox sustained.
By Monday afternoon, Mayor Joe Sack and School Board President Laura Slack issued separate public statements.
“Ed Fox’s allegations are untrue,” stated Mayor Sack. “I categorically deny Mr. Fox’s allegations. No matter what Mr. Fox’s perspective may be regarding the School District’s handling of the high profile teacher cases, he is irresponsible to cast such unfounded aspersions on me — not to mention my wife, the members of the School Board, and the members of the City Council, whom I presume will speak for themselves.”
Board President Slack charged Fox with making “a number of outrageous allegations without one shred of proof that anything unethical or improper occurred. These allegations are not true.” Further, she stated, “The Board was fully informed and properly acted in approving the settlement, and I, as Board of Education President, have acted in compliance with my ethical responsibilities under Board Policy 2160 and have, at all times, conducted myself with propriety. Mr. Fox owes me and the rest of the Board of Education an apology.”
Fox told the paper, “The facts are not in dispute. Laura Slack participated in the process of this agreement. The Mayor described the vetting process at the first City Council meeting of the year, when both Laura and Richard Slack were in the audience at City Hall. If there was no impropriety, the people involved should welcome an investigation.” He added, “My interest here is how the School Board conducts itself.”
No details on any of the negotiations have been made public, nor are they likely to be. In yesterday’s press announcement regarding Topol, the District stated: “The parties have also agreed to refrain from commenting upon this matter further.”
Meanwhile, the status of two teachers, Carin Mehler, a fourth-grade teacher at Osborn, and Dana Coppola, a third-grade teacher at Milton, remains in limbo. Shannon Gold, a fourth-grade teacher at Milton, came to a settlement with the District on January 17 and resigned effective January 31.
To hear Fox’s statement in full, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gV7KTzN6CmE&feature=youtu.be.