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Reinstate the two principals fired in cheating scandal, court says

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 trial court 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.” Even the arbitrator acknowledged this and “his failure 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 that although the principals should be held accountable, firing was excessive.

"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."

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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