Some question backlash against Windsor principal’s posts

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/15/2020 9:27:05 PM
Modified: 6/18/2020 10:50:01 AM

WINDSOR — The Mount Ascutney School Board’s decision to oust Windsor School Principal Tiffany Riley from her job due to a social media post seen as critical of the Black Lives Matter movement has some people, including Vermont’s governor, pondering whether the action violates Riley’s right to free speech.

“When you have someone that is expressing their right to free speech, to be penalized for that in that manner, I think, is problematic,” Republican Gov. Phil Scott said when asked about the matter during a news conference in Montpelier.

He went on to say the matter could be adjudicated in court.

The Mount Ascutney School Board voted unanimously Friday to place Riley on paid administrative leave after community members and recent graduates objected to a post on her private Facebook page.

In the post, Riley said she agrees that “black lives matter” but not “coercive measures taken to get this point across; some of which are falsified in an attempt to prove a point.”

She added, “I do not think people should be made to feel they have to choose black race over human race.” 

The six-member School Board responded Friday with a statement saying, “the ignorance, prejudice, and lack of judgment in these statements are utterly contrary to the values we espouse as a school board and district.” Superintendent David Baker told the Valley News the school district will work in the coming weeks to craft a “mutually agreed upon severance package” with Riley.

Although School Board Chairwoman Elizabeth Burrows objected over the weekend to characterizing the board’s and superintendent’s actions as a move toward firing Riley, the board’s statement on Friday described it as “resolved that Riley will no longer lead our school.” She is paid $110,000 a year.

Whether disciplinary action taken against Riley constitutes a violation of her First Amendment rights is complicated and would likely need to be decided in the courts, according to legal and school experts.

“School staff do not shed their free speech rights simply because they become school leaders,” Jay Nichols, executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association, said Monday.

But, he said, there are limits to free speech. School districts do have the right to restrict an employee’s speech, including in instances when that speech is deemed counter to a school’s mission or inappropriate, according to Nichols.

For instance, a principal who makes derogatory remarks about a specific religious group could lose their job, he said.

Stephen Ellis, a Burlington-based attorney who specializes in employment law, said First Amendment questions often require courts to balance the interests of employees against those of their employers.

Employers may not want someone espousing ideas seen as offensive associated with them, Ellis said, adding that’s especially true of people in management positions, who are often viewed as representing an organization.

“It’s one thing to have a custodian, for example, expressing views on Facebook,” Ellis said. “It’s another thing to have your principal expressing views on Facebook.”

But while private sector businesses can fire an at-will employee for off-duty conduct, it’s more difficult for schools and local governments to do the same, he said.

Vermont law grants principals a higher degree of job protection than their private-sector counterparts, and those who have served at least two years in the same position can only be dismissed for “just cause,” according to Nichols.

They’re also entitled to a hearing where the principal can call witnesses and be represented by an attorney, he said. If that fails, an appeal can be sought in Superior Court.

However, that protection only applies to principals with multiyear contracts. Riley has served as principal of the K-12 school since 2015 and has been an educator in Vermont for more than 20 years.

School boards could instead decline to renew a principal’s contract and forgo the appeals process so long as they inform the principal before Feb. 1, Nichols said.

“You can basically have a principal leave for non-renewal for no reason or any good reason, but you can’t do it for a bad reason,” he said, pointing to discrimination based on sex, gender or race as possible “bad reasons.”

Riley’s contract, which the Valley News obtained through a public records request, ends on June 30 and provides the option to appeal her dismissal, even if it’s done through the non-renewal of her contract.

Emails left for Riley on Monday were not returned. Burrows, the school board chairwoman, declined to comment on free speech questions.

School officials have previously said they hope to negotiate a “mutually agreed upon severance package” with Riley, and the School Board went into executive session Monday night with plans to talk to her.

If an agreement is reached, Riley’s right to appeal and concerns about First Amendment violations would be rendered “moot,” according to Ellis.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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