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District to appeal reinstatement order of principals in cheating scandal

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

The School District is appealing an April Commonwealth Court order to reinstate two principals who lost their jobs as part of the cheating scandal that rocked the District several years ago. Michelle Burns was principal of Tilden Middle School and Marla Travis-Curtis led Lamberton Elementary when forensic analyses showed statistically improbable numbers of wrong-to-right erasures in PSSA test booklets between 2009 and 2011. Both were terminated by the District in 2014. But an arbitrator, brought into the case by the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators (CASA), ruled that although cheating occurred under their watch, there was no evidence that they had an active part in it. A Common Pleas Court judge later overturned that decision, but the Commonwealth Court panel agreed with the arbitrator. In a statement, the District said that they are appealing to the state Supreme Court because of “clear evidence that Dr. Burns and Ms. Travis-Curtis knew or should have known of the widespread, systematic cheating at their schools for at least two years.” “The School District of Philadelphia is guided by our conviction that every one of our schools and students deserve strong and competent principals," the statement said. "…In Dr. Burns’ case, the arbitrator agreed that an ‘astounding amount of cheating’ had taken place under her watch and that such cheating could not have taken place if Dr. Burns had exercised ‘reasonable supervisory care and control’ over the examination. In Ms. Travis-Curtis’s case, the arbitrator stated that one can only conclude that [Travis-Curtis] may have been aware or chose not to be aware’ of the cheating…The failure of the arbitrator to heed his own words is shocking to us and anyone with common sense of what is right for children.”

Commonwealth Court Judge P. Kevin Brobson wrote both decisions, using nearly identical reasoning. In the Burns case, he wrote: "Although the cheating which occurred at Tilden is abhorrent and such conduct must be rooted out, the arbitrator found only that Burns failed to uncover the cheating and prevent it,” behavior that doesn’t warrant loss of livelihood. Both women said at the time of the ruling that they were grateful to be vindicated. "I want to be able to go back to the school community and continue to make a difference in the lives of children,” said Travis-Curtis. “I just wish it never happened.” Robin Cooper, president of CASA, said she is disappointed that the District has chosen to prolong the case. "In a school district that is purportedly strapped for resources, there is a better way of spending taxpayers’ money," she said. "It’s been in arbitration, there was an arbirator’s decision to return them to work, and at some point the District has to be respectful of a process that they agreed to."

These cases, Cooper said, "were problematic from the beginning and it was our hope we could begin to get these ladies back to work."

When the Commonwealth Court decision was handed down, Cooper said while some punishment was appropriate since cheating occured on their watch, she felt that Burns and Travis-Curtis were made "scapegoats." "We don’t uphold any type of cheating," she said. "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." The probes were undertaken after the Notebook and Newsworks disclosed the existence of a "forensic audit" of test booklets from 2009 done by the testing company.

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