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Riverside teachers suspended in test flap win back their jobs

Insubordination charges against two Riverside Institute of Technology social studies teachers were dismissed Thursday. That cleared the way for them to return to the classroom after a year’s suspension – and possible firing – during which the district paid them, as well as their classroom replacements.

In addition, the teachers union petitioned Thursday to dismiss identical charges against three other social studies teachers at the school who have not had hearings yet. All were suspended in a flap over grading Regents exams.

The Buffalo Public Schools filed charges in January with the state Education Department accusing the five of not following orders in June 2015, when Assistant Principal Patrick J. Doyle told them to start grading exams while other students were still in testing. The school district wanted to fire them, alleging Roland Davis, James Pax and the three others did not follow orders.

But Davis and Pax argued – and hearing officer Stephen P. LaLonde agreed – that Doyle’s instruction was not correct procedure, violated past practice and would have compromised exam security, noting that exams traditionally had not been graded until all had been turned in. In the Riverside case, 80 to 100 students were still finishing tests when Doyle wanted to start the grading to make sure it finished on schedule.

The refusals were considered clear insubordination and blatant disregard for a “well-worn principle in labor relations where there are matters of disagreement between supervisors and employees, that the employee ‘work now, grieve later,’ ” Superintendent Kriner Cash wrote in the district’s submission. Cash said the teachers defied “a direct order” and “the only appropriate disciplinary response is termination.”

But LaLonde cited at least 15 years of past practice, as well as administrative efficiency and the state Education Department’s “concerns for absolute security and integrity of the testing process,” in siding with the teachers. He also found the exam schedule given to teachers did not indicate that grading was to begin the very afternoon of the test, even if students had not finished. In addition, he said, the teachers tried to comply, but by the time they got the completed exams, there were only 15 minutes left in the school day.

He blamed the yearlong dispute on a situation “allowed to escalate out of proportion to the triggering event,” resulting in misunderstandings “that quickly led to rigidity verging on rigor mortis.”

Philip Rumore, Buffalo Teachers Federation president, estimated that, with the payment of salaries and benefits to the five teachers, plus their replacements and legal fees, “probably a half million dollars was wasted.” But a district statement said the case was handled in-house and “there were no outside legal fees spent.” As for the ruling itself, officials said: “We respectfully disagree and we are reviewing and considering avenues of appeal. We stand by our original charge of insubordination.”

Rumore, had a different take on the outcome.

“Although the Riverside teachers don’t want one, they deserve an apology,” he said. “And all the administrators that were involved in these vindictive actions should have actions brought against them for incompetence.”