School board to hear Abbottston principal reinstatement cases Tuesday

Attorneys representing the two Baltimore principals who were recommended for reinstatement last month, after they were dismissed amid suspicion that their school had cheated on state tests, will present their case before the city school board on Tuesday.

The board will decide whether to uphold the decisions of two independent hearing officers, who determined that the school system's investigation into test-tampering allegations at Abbottston Elementary School was fundamentally flawed and based on little evidence; or to uphold city schools CEO Andres Alonso's decision to dismiss the principals after the school's scores dropped drastically in 2010 from 100 percent proficiency marks the year prior, and other school system analyses indicated that adults had tampered with tests.

Or they could reject both, and start the process all over again.

The school board denied the principal union's request to open the hearing to the public during which "open arguments" in the administrative personnel hearings will be presented--apparently the first time ever that a school board has allowed the exercise.

"The rules are set up to ensure that the Board's decisions are made solely on the basis of the merits of the evidence, testimony and argument of respective counsel - free from outside influences," said Neil Duke, chairman of the board, in a statement.

He said that in the principal union's request to make the hearings public, "a compelling argument was not made to abandon the traditional approach adopted and practiced by the district." 

Jimmy Gittings, president of the union, said that he didn't understand the board's rationale because it has never heard oral arguments, and therefore no tradition had been established.

"I sincerely hope that the board abides by the decisions of the two hearing officers," Gittings said. "If in fact the board does not uphold the decision of the hearing officers, I assure you it will be a very, very dark day for the children, the teachers, and administrators in the Baltimore city school system."

The union has spent more than $700,000 fighting Alonso's decision, which it deemed a "rush to judgement," that could undermine the school chief's approach to holding principals accountable for suspected cheating. 

The union legally fought the system in a seven month administrative hearing during which Alonso, school system investigators, educators, the principals, parents and several state and city officials testified.

The Baltimore Sun obtained documents that outlined some of what transpired in the normally non-public hearings.

Alonso moved to dismiss Abbottston Principal Angela Faltz and Assistant Principal Marcy Issac amid suspicions of cheating in 2009, a year that the U.S. Secretary of Education visited the school to praise it as a national example. He was most likely going to take their licenses, a prescedent he set with former George Washington Elementary School Principal, Susan Burgess.

But, in 2010, he school's math scores dropped by about 30 percent; reading scores fell 37 percent. The school system said that any reason given for the dramatic drops did not adequately explain the school's declines.

Moreover, the system maintained in arguments, that an analysis that looked at how students performed when they left Abbottston also suggested that adults had changed answers. Every explanation that the principals provided, the school system rejected, arguing that several other schools faced the same challenges--and none had experienced what Abbottston did.

But the hearing officers, attorneys hired by the school system to review facts and render independent opinions on personnel cases, concluded that Alonso had not met the burden of proof (the burden is on the CEO) in dismissing the principals. Additionally, they determined that there was not enough reliable evidence to confirm that cheating had even taken place at the school, let alone who did it.

"While there is a healthy dose of speculation, suggestion and suspicion that cheating occurred in 2009, there is a lack of credible evidence that cheating actually occurred," one hearing officer wrote. "Not one witness was able to testify with certainty that they knew what happened in Abbottston. To the contrary, witness after witness stated that they did not know what happened at Abbottston."

And an erasure analysis conducted by a state education official which found hundreds of answers changed-- the very foundation of the school system's case--was called "crude" by one officer, and "incompetent" by the other.

Experts, even those who believed that the system was right to suspect cheating at Abbottston, said the state official's methodology was so sloppy that it gave erasure analyses a bad name, and were flabbergasted that the district relied so heavily on it for its case.

These, and several other arguments, will be considered by the school board on Tuesday. If their decision is appealed, it will go to the state school board.

Gittings said that even though the union is "financially devastated" by the seven-month administrative hearing, he was ready to go as far as possible to have the principals vindicated, "even if it's the Supreme Court of the United States," he said.

The board has 30 days to render an opinion.


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