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Windsor principal sues School Board over dismissal

  • As Eric Gershman, of Stowe, Vt., packs up his audio equipment following a rally he organized in support of Windsor School Principal Tiffany Riley, Jacob Garnjost, of Windsor, Vt., right, asks why Gershman didn't read Riley's Facebook post that caused the school board to oust her. Riley's post on her page was seen as critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. A 2016 Windsor High School graduate, Garnjost is the son of board member Kris Garnjost. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Geoff Hansen

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 7/5/2020 8:51:35 PM
Modified: 7/5/2020 8:51:33 PM

WINDSOR — The Windsor principal on paid administrative leave following her posts on Black Lives Matter has filed a lawsuit against the district’s school board, alleging the board made defamatory remarks about her and violated her free speech and due process rights.

Tiffany Riley’s lawsuit claims the Mount Ascutney School Board dismissed her “without seeking any input or explanation” from her or considering her past performance.

The complaint, filed in the civil division of Windsor Superior Court in Woodstock last Monday, says the remarks have “damaged her” and “created reasonable expectations” that she won’t be able to find another job in the area.

The lawsuit specifically mentions Superintendent David Baker’s remarks in a Valley News article, where he called Riley’s Facebook post “outright racist.”

In an emailed response to questions, the superintendent emphasized Riley was placed on leave, not terminated.

“It is pretty difficult to file a wrongful termination suit when someone hasn’t been terminated,” Baker wrote. “I will leave that up to the lawyers to figure that out.”

Riley’s attorney, Bill Meub, said it was clear Riley’s employment with the district had ended.

“We believe they terminated her and dismissed her under the law as we see it,” Meub said. “At this point, the school board sees things slightly differently than we do.”

Meub said they were hopeful for a peaceful resolution.

“It’s really up to the school board whether they want to look at things differently than terminating her,” Meub said.

Lawyers not involved in the case said employment law and constitutional issues are at play.

Jared Carter, an assistant professor at Vermont Law School and a constitutional law scholar, said private speech is protected, but those rights may be diminished in Riley’s role as principal.

“Political speech is some of the most protected speech there is,” Carter said. “It gets murky if indeed she did this in some way that’s connected to her role as the principal.”

Riley’s initial Facebook post was made on a Wednesday, just before the last day of school. It’s unclear if the Facebook post was made during working hours and if it was made using a school computer.

Jay Nichols, the executive director of the Vermont Principals Association, who said he’s seen hundreds of legal cases, also said school organizations can restrict the speech of employees if it is counter to the mission of the organization.

“If your speech is political in nature but doesn’t go against the mission of the school district, usually you’re OK,” Nichols said.

Under law, principals can’t be dismissed from positions unless they’re notified by the board by Feb. 1 that the district doesn’t intend to renew their contracts or unless they’re given just cause, including a hearing before the school board.

Stephen Ellis, an attorney in Burlington who specializes in employment law, said the board may honor Riley’s new two-year contract by paying her $229,500 before dismissing her.

“If the board doesn’t intend to return you to your employment, it’s pretty clear your employment has ended,” Ellis said. “The board may argue that she hasn’t been fired, she’s been relieved from her duties.”

The school board met in executive session for an hour and a half on Wednesday, the night before a small rally for Riley took place in Windsor, but took no action.

Riley, who was not part of the rally, has since removed the comments from her Facebook page.

“We plan to meet with her next week to gather more information; after that, we will decide how best to proceed,” the board said in a statement.

The issue concerning Riley has garnered national attention. The board had received up to 200 emails a day, Baker said.

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