Philly principals fired in test cheating win back jobs through arbitration

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 Two Philadelphia principals fired for their roles in a standardized test cheating scandal, Michelle Burns (top) and Marla Travis-Curtis, have won favorable arbitration rulings. (Portraits via social media. Background <a href=photo via ShutterStock) " title="principals-reinstated" width="640" height="360"/>

Two Philadelphia principals fired for their roles in a standardized test cheating scandal, Michelle Burns (top) and Marla Travis-Curtis, have won favorable arbitration rulings. (Portraits via social media. Background photo via ShutterStock)

Two principals fired by the Philadelphia School District in the wake of the statewide standardized test cheating scandal have won favorable rulings through arbitration that could return them to school leadership.

Michelle Burns, formerly principal at Kensington Urban Education Academy, won a ruling reinstating her as a district principal. Arbitrator Ralph Colflesh said the district is to provide back pay less wages from a 60-day suspension.

Burns was principal of Tilden Middle School when there was evidence of cheating in 2009-10.

Marla Travis-Curtis, formerly principal of Lamberton Elementary School, won a ruling that could return her to the district, but demote her to assistant principal.

Arbitrator Alan Symonette ordered the district to provide Travis-Curtis back-pay at an assistant principal rate less a 30 day suspension.

Both Burns and Travis-Curtis are also to receive compensation for any money they spent on benefits due to their termination.

“At this time, the school district is reviewing all its legal options in response to the arbitration findings,” wrote district spokesman Fernando Gallard in a statement.

The Philadelphia School District terminated Burns and Travis-Curtis in January 2014, along with Deidre Bennett.

Bennett, formerly principal of Cassidy Elementary, lost her bid to be reinstated through arbitration. Bennett was on the staff at Huey Elementary when there was evidence of cheating from 2009-11.

The rulings were made by arbitrators agreed to by the School District of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators (CASA).

The rulings for Burns and Travis-Curtis were made last week. Bennett’s decision was made earlier in the summer.

None of the three could be reached for comment.

‘In limbo’

It remains unclear in what schools Burns and Travis-Curtis could be reinstated. CASA President Robert McGrogan said the union and the district still needed to hash out the details.

“We’re really in limbo stage at this point where no final outcomes have been determined,” said McGrogan.

Travis-Curtis’ potential reassignment is especially complex, McGrogan said, based on the arbitrator’s decision to demote her to assistant principal.

McGrogan confirmed that CASA would not appeal the decision upholding Bennett’s termination.

Neither the district, nor CASA would comment on the specific cases, nor would they release copies of the arbitration documents.

‘Tier 2’ complete

The rulings are the latest revelations in the widespread cheating scandal that became public after NewsWorks and The Philadelphia Public School Notebook reported in 2011 the results of the forensic analysis done by the state of 2009 test data.

The initial analysis found an improbably high number of wrong-to-right erasures on tests at 89 schools statewide.

The state’s probe widened to more than 100 schools across dozens of school districts in Pennsylvania.  The fallout has mainly affected educators in the Philadelphia School District, where 53 schools have been targeted. Seven Philadelphia charter schools were also investigated.

Statewide, the Pennsylvania Department of Education has closed or cleared investigations at 37 school districts or charters.

Ten school districts or charters (listed below) remain in “open watch” status, through which schools remain under the most rigorous testing and test-monitoring protocols.

Philadelphia is the only district or charter in the state that remains under “active investigation.”

There, the Department of Education decided that the most serious cases, dubbed “tier 1,” would be handled by the state Inspector General’s office.

Twelve district schools fell into this category, implicating 69 educators.

So far, eight district educators in this category have been criminally charged. In addition to those eight, another three have been stripped of their state certifications.

The Philadelphia district led cheating probes at another 19 “tier 2” schools, including those run by Burns, Travis-Curtis, and Bennett.

In these cases, the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP provided pro-bono assistance – interviewing 550 people, including students, and devoting 5,000 hours to the cases.

The firm found evidence of cheating in 13 district schools, implicating an additional 69 educators.

District officials have said that educators faced termination if there was clear evidence that they changed answers, provided answers, or told someone to violate testing protocols.

In addition to Burns, Travis-Curtis, and Bennett, the district disciplined five principals through its “tier 2” investigation.

One was suspended for 10 days. Two had their term pay reduced by 10 days’ pay. Two had term pay withheld in its entirety.

The district disciplined seven teachers. Three were terminated. One had term pay withheld in its entirety. Three were temporarily suspended.

School district general counsel Michael A. Davis said the district could not legally name any of these educators, nor the schools associated with them.

The district did confirm that one of the terminated teachers won back the job through arbitration.

In an additional 16 cases involving principals or teachers, the district did not seek disciplinary action. Some teachers, though, were barred from becoming testing coordinators.

With these actions, the district said it has concluded all disciplinary actions connected to the “tier 2” investigations.

As of January 2014, 40 of the educators implicated in the “tier 2” investigation were still employed by the district. At that point, twenty-nine others had resigned, retired, or been laid off.

The district could not immediately provide an updated count.

(Wagner Elementary had been in “tier 2,” but the state intervened shortly after a story published by NewsWorks and The Notebook found the district’s investigation lacking.)

Tier 3

The district is also responsible for investigating 22 “tier 3” schools.

Spokesman Gallard said the district was still in the process of collecting data, and that disciplinary actions have not yet begun – a status that has lingered for years.

Gallard blamed a shortage of internal staffing for the protracted timeline of the “tier 3” investigations.

The district is not currently working with outside counsel to investigate these schools.

‘Open watch’

Ten school districts or charters remain on the state’s list for heightened test scrutiny:

Delaware Valley School District
Derry Area School District
Harrisburg City School District
Lancaster School District
Monessen City School District
Walter D. Palmer Leadership Charter School (Philadelphia) (Now Closed).
Chester Community Charter School
Hazleton Area School District
Imhotep Institute Charter School (Philadelphia)
Reading School District

Five Philadelphia charter schools have had investigations “cleared” or “closed” by the state:

Alliance for Progress Charter School
Charter High School for Architecture 
Maritime Academy Charter School
Wissahickon Charter School
Philadelphia Electrical and Technical Charter School

Statewide, after systemic cheating came to light and test security was tightened, scores dropped precipitously at schools flagged for cheating.

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