The January 28 meeting of the Rye City Board of Education drew a big and vocal crowd. News continues to break on the four teachers who were suspended last spring — one resigned last month, another was reinstated last week — and there was a dustup on the Board.
By Sarah Varney
The January 28 meeting of the Rye City Board of Education drew a big and vocal crowd. News continues to break on the four teachers who were suspended last spring — one resigned last month, another was reinstated last week — and there was a dustup on the Board. Many community members were there because of the furor that erupted after a special meeting on January 27, when longtime Board member Ed Fox asked President Laura Slack to recuse herself from participating any further in the suspended teachers’ matter because of what might be construed as a conflict of interest, and, further, that the board postpone voting on the reinstatement of Osborn teacher Gail Topol.
Fox summed up his concern: “At no time was the Board made aware of Mayor Sack’s consideration or appointment of Richard Slack [Laura Slack’s husband] to a City Council seat while Board President Laura Slack was involved in this matter with Mayor Sack’s wife, Kerry [who was representing Topol].”
Despite Fox’s urging, on Monday, the Board voted 6-1, with Fox the lone nay, to approve the “amicable settlement” with Topol, which clears her in the May 2013 improper test coaching controversy.
Topol will return to her classroom immediately and will be teaching third grade at Osborn for the 2014-2015 school year, according to the resolution agreement obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. In the agreement, no wrongdoing or any violation of any law was charged, however in return for not bringing charges, Topol did agree to pay a fine of $2,500. In addition, while the District promised not to call Topol to testify against fellow teachers in any legal hearing, it did retain the right to call her as a rebuttal witness in any such future hearings.
At Tuesday’s Board meeting, a number of community members and individual Board members spoke in support of President Slack. Josh Nathan, a former Board President, spoke in support of both Slack and Fox.
Several Osborn parents expressed pleasure at the news about Topol. “I am relieved to hear that one of our finest and most experienced teachers will soon be back in the classroom where she belongs,” said Dr. Barbara Lock, a mother with two children at Osborn.
In an interview on Monday afternoon, Fox defended his statement. “People will draw whatever inferences they want about what I stated. That’s why we have these [conflict of interest] rules. This is the sort of controversy we want to avoid. The facts are the facts. If she doesn’t like the inferences, then she should have recused herself. That’s why the policy exists,” he added.
“In my view, when the husband of the lawyer on the one side is negotiating with the wife of the person who may benefit from that negotiation, there’s the possibility of the appearance of impropriety. It only becomes an issue when it seems like a benefit will accrue on behalf of the board member,” he continued. Fox was referring to concerns expressed to him by community members that perhaps Mrs. Slack had helped craft a positive outcome for Topol in return for a City Council seat for her husband, Richard Slack.
But Board members questioned Fox’s timing and the fact that he had never brought up his concerns during any executive session. Fox refused to comment on what he had or hadn’t expressed in any executive session, but demurred on whether or not he had consulted the Board’s counsel individually on the matter.
Fellow board member Chris Repetto called Fox’s statement “purposefully disingenuous” and questioned his decision to bring the matter up in a public forum.
Former Board member Young Kim was particularly emphatic in defense of Mrs. Slack. “This is a ludicrous charge. It is impossible to believe that six members of this board along with five members of the City Council colluded to make this decision,” she said.
City Councilman Terry McCartney stated, “It was I who proposed that Richard Slack fill one of the open seats. All five Councilmembers deliberated, discussed it, and chose Richard.”
Both McCartney and Rye school parent Kim Abate decried the anonymous personal attacks being made on local online forums. “These attacks are going to have a chilling effect on volunteerism in Rye. They have to stop,” McCartney stressed.
Nathan urged the board to settle the matter among themselves. “Stop your fighting, get over it. We’ve got bigger issues, move on.”
Meanwhile, Carin Mehler, a fourth-grade teacher at Osborn, and Dana Coppola, a third-grade teacher at Milton, remain on suspension. Milton teacher Shannon Gold reached an agreement with the District on January 17 and resigned effective January 31.
In a statement sent to the paper after a conversation with The Rye Record on Tuesday, Superintendent Dr. Frank Alvarez said, “We continue to strive to reach a resolution with the remaining two teachers. Currently, they are doing curriculum-related work, such as leveling books for individual classroom libraries.”
“I understand the public’s interest in obtaining more information with respect to this matter. At times, I would like to share more information — it’s frustrating to me, too. However, we are precluded by law from discussing personnel matters with the public. We will continue to share updates as we are able.”