This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Commonwealth Court has ordered the reinstatement of another principal who was fired in the wake of a cheating scandal that swept through Philadelphia schools.
Marla Travis-Curtis, who had been principal of Lamberton, was terminated by the School District in January 2014. That was after a statistical analysis of 2009-2011 test booklets by the Pennsylvania Department of Education showed that Lamberton was among 53 Philadelphia schools with a suspicious number of wrong-to-right erasures.
The ruling, handed down Tuesday, upheld the decision of an arbitrator and overturned a trial court that had decided for the District. The arbitrator found that while there was cheating at the school, no evidence existed that Curtis herself participated in it. He ordered a much reduced penalty of a 30-day unpaid suspension and demotion to assistant principal for implementing insufficient testing security procedures and, as the school’s top administrator, being ultimately liable for improper conduct by school staff.
Travis-Curtis was defended by her bargaining unit, the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, or CASA, which argued that the District’s action violated language in its contract regarding what constitutes "cause" for termination.
"We were just glad that an arbitrator was able to see through some of the flaws of the case," said CASA president Robin Cooper. "There was little to no evidence with regard to these principals. How can you stop something you don’t know?"
Earlier this month, using similar reasoning, Commonwealth Court reinstated Michelle Burns, who had been principal of Tilden Middle School during the time test-book tampering occurred there and was also terminated.
"These ladies were made the scapegoats simply because they were in charge of the school," Cooper said. "We don’t uphold any type of cheating. We teach children not to cheat. We accept the fact that they were in charge of the building, but we ask for a just punishment."
Firing was excessive, she said. "You don’t take away people’s livehihoods without evidence. The ruling sets a precedent that you need to have evidence rather than going on a witchhunt with [CASA] members who served the District forever, with honesty and integrity."
Both Burns and Travis-Curtis were veteran administrators with long records in the District. Travis-Curtis had been principal of Lamberton for 13 years and had been a teacher before that. She is the daughter of Ella Travis, the longtime legendary principal of Carver High School of Engineering and Science.
Travis-Curtis, reached by telephone, was ebullient.
"I’m happy to be vindicated," she said. "I want to be able to go back to the school community and continue to make a difference in the lives of children. I just wish it never happened. It’s been three years and three months of total chaos."
She described a situation at the school in which there was "a lot going on," especially when Lamberton was a K-12 school, which it was at the time of the cheating. Her first duty was to keep students safe, she said, in a building where "19-year-old men were in the same space as 5-year-old girls. We had other duties besides monitoring the [tests]."
The arbitrator, she said, "found I was negligent, there was cheating going on and I failed to uncover in hindsight." But with "amazing students, amazing teachers," she said, "why would I think any cheating was going on? We had monitors from the School District… in and out constantly. They used my school as a model and me as a model. I would go around to area schools and help principals come up with best practice models to help them administer the test."
In investigating cheating, the state and District divided up the schools into three tiers based on the severity of the suspected conduct. The state took on Tier 1 where more severe misconduct was suspected and the District itself investigated less egregious cases in Tiers 2 and 3, of which Lamberton was a part.
In the time since she was terminated, Travis-Curtis opened a chain of preschools and day care centers, but said she is eager to get back to a school setting.
"Three years and three months, I’m shaken up by the entire thing."
While arbitrator rulings are given great weight in labor cases, there is a "public policy exception" that allows them to be overturned. The lower court upheld the exception here argued by the District — that it is well understood that integrity of the testing policy must be maintained in schools. But Commonwealth Court ruled that the exception is too broad.
"This Court has not previously recognized a public policy exception that would prevent an administrator from being reinstated based on mere negligence, and we decline to recognize one based on the facts of this case," wrote Judge P. Kevin Brobson, the same judge who wrote the opinion in the Burns case.
"Although the cheating which occurred at Lamberton is abhorrent and such conduct must be rooted out, the arbitrator found only that Travis-Curtis failed to uncover the cheating and prevent it. Thus, we cannot conclude an award reinstating an adminstrator after finding her guilty of mere negligence violates a fundamental public policy."
There is no word on whether the District will appeal further. Spokesman Lee Whack issued a statement: "We are reviewing this ruling and have not yet decided on our next course of action."