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Court disagrees with arbitrator in test-cheating cases

The principals' union, which is appealing the decision, called the ruling "a gross overstep."

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

A Philadelphia court has overruled decisions by arbitrators to reinstate two former principals who were implicated in the city’s standardized-test cheating scandal and fired for failing in their duties as school leaders.

The principals’ union is appealing the judge’s ruling, citing procedure and contract language in arguing that they should be reinstated.

Marla Travis-Curtis, former principal of Lamberton Elementary, and Michelle Burns, former principal of Tilden Middle School, were sanctioned by the School District in the multi-year investigation of widespread cheating that led to statistically improbable gains on PSSA exams at some schools.

Fired in 2014, the two won their arbitration rulings last year after it could not be determined that they were directly involved in the undeniable cheating that took place at the schools for which they bore responsibility. A third former principal, Deidre Bennett, who was terminated with Travis-Curtis and Burns, did not get a favorable arbitration ruling.

Judge Linda Carpenter of the Court of Common Pleas said that each arbitrator, in reinstating the two women, “acted outside the scope of his authority” by basing the decision on standards not drawn from the union contract, which dictates that the District retains sole discretion in firing administrators for cause.

She also cited the state’s public policy exception for overruling an arbitration award.

In her opinions, which were issued separately in January but are very similar in substance, Carpenter sounded a note of caution about the risk of judicializing the arbitration process. But it “strains credulity,” she wrote, to argue in defense of the educators that public policy fails to specify that principals keep federally mandated tests free from cheating in their schools.

“Public confidence in public education is eroded when the principal of a public school turns a blind eye to such obvious cheating perpetrated by employees in her direct supervision,” Carpenter wrote. “To reinstate the head of a school under these circumstances sends a message to Philadelphia’s children of ‘do as I say, not as I do,’ a most dangerous message and one that is the worst example to youth whose ideals the professional is supposed to elevate and foster.”

Robert McGrogan, president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, which represents principals and is appealing the decision, believes that the arbitrators’ rulings should stand and called the judge’s order “a gross overstep.”

“We entered into a collective bargaining agreement with the School District, and in it, it indicates that we would resolve disputes through arbitration and live with whatever the arbitration ruling is,” said McGrogan. “In this case, the District objected to what the arbitrator ruled, so we were required to fight at a higher level.”

Asked about the outcome of the decision and why the District appealed the arbitration ruling, School District spokesperson Fernando Gallard said, “We agree with the decision from the judge. We can’t comment any further, because it’s an ongoing legal case.”

But McGrogan said the District’s rejection of the arbitrators’ decisions is just another instance of its penchant for doing what it wants, ignoring procedure, and resolving disputes in court, a reference to the School District’s prolific use of suspending the state school code.

“They got something they didn’t like and said, ‘We’re going to take the ball and leave.’”

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