Judge orders due process hearing in Windsor principal case

  • Tiffany Riley

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/13/2020 12:06:37 PM
Modified: 8/13/2020 10:23:51 PM

RUTLAND — Tiffany Riley’s future as principal of Windsor’s schools should be decided at a hearing before the Mount Ascutney School Board before Riley’s lawsuit against the same board can be heard, a federal judge has ruled.

Riley’s attorney, William Meub, had asked the court for a preliminary injunction to halt a due process hearing before the School Board, a step either party can demand in a termination proceeding involving an administrator.

The Mount Ascutney board, represented at the hearing by Burlington lawyer Sean Toohey, had asked the court to dismiss Riley’s lawsuit, which charges the board with wrongfully terminating her.

“I’m not going to issue an injunction telling people they can’t have a due process hearing,” U.S. District Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford said at the end of Thursday’s 40-minute hearing in U.S. District Court in Rutland.

The two sides already have agreed to a mediation session for Aug. 20, prior to any hearing, Meub told the court.

Crawford said if mediation doesn’t yield a settlement, the due process hearing should go forward.

“It gives the principal a chance to clear her name,” and to give the two sides an opportunity to address the issues at hand, Crawford said.

The dispute in Windsor stems from a Facebook post Riley made in June in which she wrote that she believed that “black lives matter” but “I DO NOT agree with coercive measures taken to get this point across; some of which are falsified in an attempt to prove a point.”

The School Board placed her on administrative leave, but district officials also stated that they felt Riley had lost the community’s confidence and could not continue as principal, a post she had held since 2015.

Meub argued Thursday that the board’s actions had caused Riley irreparable harm, and that the board was seeking to hold a due process hearing only because school officials erred in announcing their intention to fire Riley so quickly.

The board moved “to terminate and dismiss” Riley “as of June 12,” then by June 18 realized it had made a mistake, Meub said. In addition to placing Riley on leave, board members and Superintendent David Baker made public statements that Riley wouldn’t come back to work in the district, and board members signed a letter to Riley to the effect, Meub said.

“That’s about as clear as you can be that this was a dismissal,” Meub said.

He argued that school officials had “figuratively taken a baseball bat to my client,” and shouldn’t have a second opportunity to do so at a due process hearing.

Toohey, who participated in Thursday’s hearing via teleconferencing software from his office in Burlington, said that regardless of the board’s statements, it had not taken action to fire Riley.

“There was no decision that she was actually terminated,” he said.

The board has since voted, at a meeting on July 27, to terminate Riley’s employment pending the outcome of the due process hearing, which was stayed pending the outcome of mediation, Toohey said.

In denying both Riley’s motion for an injunction and the School Board’s motion to dismiss the case, Crawford essentially paused the lawsuit, saying that it couldn’t progress until the due process hearing took place, but also affirming that Riley’s claim was still pending.

“You waive nothing by going through the (due process) hearing,” he told Meub.

The ruling leaves the way clear for the School Board to negotiate an end to Riley’s employment with the district, but also preserved the opportunity for Riley to sue for damages, an issue Crawford said he wasn’t going to touch “with a barge pole,” at least not yet.

For now, the lawsuit is “really best addressed by waiting” until the hearing takes place, Crawford said, adding, “I will be on the edge of my seat.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.

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