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Putting Hamburg teacher on leave was unlawful, state education commissioner says

The Hamburg School District unlawfully placed teacher Martha Kavanaugh on administrative leave, New York’s education commissioner says, and that must be removed from her record.

It was the second positive ruling for Kavanaugh in her bid to return to the classroom, but Commissioner MaryEllen Elia stopped short of ordering the district to put her back to work.

Kavanaugh was placed on paid administrative leave Jan. 15, 2014, in the midst of the controversy that gripped the district for several years. The suspension of a teacher requires the School Board to file written charges against the teacher within a “reasonable amount of time,” the commissioner wrote in her decision. But the district did not file charges against Kavanaugh for more than 19 months.

During that time, she was prohibited from going on school property and could not consult with colleagues, the decision noted. Elia found the board’s action constituted an “unlawful suspension in the absence of the timely filing of disciplinary charges.” She ordered all references to the administrative leave stricken from the teacher’s records and personnel files.

The board did charge Kavanaugh last fall with incompetence and insubordination for not submitting adequate lesson plans, not proctoring a final exam, not grading exams, telling a substitute teacher to use the wrong test and failing to attend an open house. She also was charged with not meeting deadlines on a curriculum project when she was on leave.

The charges could have resulted in her removal, but a hearing officer ruled in her favor, saying the district had no just cause to fire Kavanaugh. The hearing officer accused the district of “bad faith” and “unacceptable conduct” in seeking to dismiss her. The district is appealing his decision in State Supreme Court.

A spokesman for New York State United Teachers, which is representing Kavanaugh in the proceeding to remove her, said the district has an obligation to provide swift due process.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” spokesman Carl Korn said. “It was foolish of the school district to wait nearly 20 months to provide this teacher with due process. It was a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Kavanaugh asked the district to apologize to her, and to pay her fees and the costs of filing the appeal, but the commissioner said she has no authority to grant those items.

Superintendent Michael Cornell had no comment on the commissioner’s decision.