School Board votes to hold termination hearing for Windsor principal over BLM comments

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/27/2020 9:36:41 PM
Modified: 7/28/2020 8:07:27 AM

WINDSOR — The Mount Ascutney School District Board has voted to hold a termination hearing for Windsor School principal Tiffany Riley, the latest in a series of maneuvers after a controversial Facebook post she made about the Black Lives Matter movement last month.

The School Board met Monday and “passed a motion in public session to terminate Tiffany Riley as principal of the Windsor School, pending (an) evidentiary hearing,” School Board Chairwoman Elizabeth Burrows said in an emailed statement after the Valley News print deadline Monday evening. The hearing, in accordance with state law, will be held within 15 days, said Burrows.

Hearings to determine if a principal is being dismissed for “just and sufficient cause” are held in executive session unless both parties agree to open it to the public, the law reads. Witnesses and written evidence, along with cross-examination, are permitted. After the hearing, the School Board must vote to either affirm its move to fire Riley or may modify or reverse its action, and then must issue a written decision outlining its findings within five days.

The move by the board came the same day the school district, in a filing from its attorney responding to a lawsuit filed late last month by Riley, had asserted that her claims that she was unfairly dismissed from the position were false, in part because she hadn’t been fired yet.

The motion from attorney Pietro Lynn in Vermont Superior Court in Woodstock seeks to dismiss five out of six claims Riley included in a June lawsuit over her ouster, calling them “entirely speculative and conjectural.”

Though the School Board voted to put Riley on paid administrative leave in June following the Facebook post, Lynn argued that “no final decision has been made” on Riley’s job and she was still employed with the district.

Riley’s 2020 contract was up in June but she had signed a new, two-year contract in March with a $113,000 salary for the first year.

Under Vermont statute, the School Board must hold a Section 243(d) hearing to examine evidence before deciding to fire a principal in the middle of his or her contract, something the Mount Ascutney board hasn’t done, Lynn wrote.

“Practically speaking, there remains the possibility (Riley) may remain employed by the District depending upon the outcome of that hearing,” Lynn wrote, adding that she has not faced any “concrete harm” by being placed on paid administrative leave.

The motion follows the lawsuit Riley filed in June, asserting that the district unfairly placed her on leave on June 12 after she wrote a post that was seen as critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. Superintendent David Baker called the post “outright racist” in an interview with the Valley News last month.

Following the post and the decision to put Riley on leave, Baker wrote her a letter saying he sees “no path forward” for her with the school district, and suggested she consider resigning.

Riley claimed in her June 25 lawsuit that she was being dismissed from her position, calling it a violation of her First Amendment rights. She also claimed that the board and Baker had “defamed” her in statements to the Valley News.

Two weeks ago her attorney, Bill Meub, amended the complaint to include the School Board members and Baker as defendants, as well as three new claims. One called for a judge to officially declare that Riley was fired June 12, and another argued that the district had breached her contract by dismissing her without the proper protocols.

The third new claim stated that she was being discriminated against because her posts were “perceived by the defendants as being opposed to the BLM message.” Other School District employees, Meub’s filing noted, had made social media posts in support of the Black Lives Matter movement without receiving punishment.

Community members raised concerns last month after Riley had written on Facebook that, “I firmly believe 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.”

She also wrote that “While I want to get behind BLM, I do not think people should be made to feel they have to choose black race over human race.”

“While I understand the urgency to feel compelled to advocate for black lives, what about our fellow law enforcement?” Riley had written. “Just because I don’t walk around with a BLM sign should not mean I am a racist.”

In addition to placing her on leave, the School Board on June 12 released a statement that read, “The ignorance, prejudice, and lack of judgment in these statements are utterly contrary to the values we espouse as a school board and district” and later said “we are resolved that she will no longer lead our school.”

The School District’s filing did not seek to dismiss the defamation claim, but Lynn in an email on Monday said, “The Board did not defame Ms. Riley. We anticipate that at the appropriate time the court will dismiss that claim also.”

As questions over Riley’s employment status came to the surface following her lawsuit, Meub filed two motions in mid-July in an attempt to clear them up. The first was a motion for an expedited court hearing, calling on a judge to quickly determine whether she was actually fired on June 12.

“We think the law supports that they dismissed her, but we need the court to rule on it until we do anything else,” Meub said in an interview Monday.

The second was a motion for a preliminary injunction, asking a judge to prohibit the district from “taking any action against” Riley or forcing her to participate in a hearing with the school board until the judge can rule on whether or not she’s been fired.

In his response on Monday, Lynn opposed both motions, saying the call for a preliminary injunction was “nothing more than an attempt to avoid the procedural requirements spelled out (in the state statute).”

He wrote that by granting Riley’s motion — effectively preventing a board hearing about her employment status — the court would be forcing the district to breach her contract.

Meub said in an interview that Riley had requested a hearing before the board in late June but had been denied.

“We asked them to have the hearing and they refused to give it to us. They have failed to do what they were supposed to and now they’re trying to clean up what’s there,” he said.

But Lynn said a hearing is only held to determine whether to fire a principal — something that he asserted the board had not tried to do.

“The board has not terminated or sought to terminate Ms. Riley,” he wrote in an email Monday.

Hours later, the board then moved to fire Riley pending the hearing.

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com and 603-727-3216.




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