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State rules in favor of reinstating former New Suffolk teacher

08/17/2017 2:12 PM |

Former New Suffolk School teacher Martha Kennelly, who has spent two years fighting with the district that refused to reinstate her when a special assignment ended, appears to have won her case that would force the district to reinstate her and pay back wages and benefits from June 30, 2015, according to the decision written by State Commissioner of Education Mary Ellen Elia.

The district would also have to reinstate her tenure to 2015, Ms. Elia said.

New Suffolk school board president Tony Dill said Friday the district plans to “abide by the decision” and he confirmed the school’s two teachers will keep their jobs.

While he had expected the district to prevail in the case, Mr. Dill said the school board had adopted a contingency plan about a year ago.

Ms. Kennelly was a principal/teacher in the district when the New Suffolk Board of Education in 2004 approved her taking a special assignment with the Mid Eastern Suffolk Teacher Center (MESTRACT). MESTRACT reimbursed New Suffolk for Ms. Kennelly’s salary and benefits during the time was out of the district.

When a school district grants a teacher the right to accept a temporary special assignment, that teacher’s tenure and seniority remain in place and continue to accrue and the teacher is guaranteed the right to return to the home district at the end of the assignment.

The board would have to calculate the seniority of teachers involved, and unless Ms. Kennelly has the least amount of years of tenure of three teachers involved in the case, she must be reinstated with back pay and benefits to June 30, 2015. Ms. Kennelly has more tenure than either of the other two teachers — Sara Campbell and Nicole Pollina. Ms. Kennelly was hired as of September 1998. Ms. Campbell was hired as of September 2009 and Ms. Pollina as of 2011.

Ms. Kennelly said that had she lost her case, it could have sent repercussions through the entire state, prompting other teachers contemplating special assignments to reject them for fear of losing their regular teaching jobs.

But New Suffolk took her back only as a special consultant working on curriculum from her home and the board later excised that job.

On April 15, 2014, New Suffolk established a hybrid tenure area that required its teachers to be certified in both elementary education and special education. Ms. Kennelly told the Board of Education she had the elementary teaching credentials, and would have the special education credentials by the start of school in September 2014 when she planned to return. She said she completed the work necessary for that certification on time.

In her decision, Ms. Elia said the Board of Education had “no authority to create such hybrid tenure area,” meaning “it was not permissible” to transfer Ms. Pollina and Ms. Campbell to that area from which Ms. Kennelly had been excluded.

The Board of Education in September 2014 had three teachers on its payroll with only 17 students. Ms. Kennelly was working from home on curriculum; and Ms. Pollina and Ms. Campbell were working in the classrooms. The district also had two teacher assistants.

To reduce costs, the board voted to eliminate the third teaching position and because the hybrid area had been established without Ms. Kennelly, the board decided she would be the person excised.

Ms. Kennelly has spent the past two years fighting the Board of Education’s decision. During her battle with the district, Ms. Kennelly said her income was reduced by 80 percent with no benefits. In a phone interview Tuesday, she said she thought the district hadn’t expected her to have the resources to push forward with the case.

“My father taught me to pinch a penny until Lincoln’s nose bleeds,” Ms. Kennelly said.

Her attorney, Michael Starvaggi of Valley Cottage, New York, said he thought the commissioner got the decision right.

A second attorney, Frank Blangiardo of Riverhead, representing Ms. Kennelly on a separate federal age discrimination suit against the district said nothing has been settled in that federal case.

“The meter is running,” Mr. Blangiardo said about the federal case. “We’d like to see her back in the classroom where she would like to be” in September, he said.

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File photo credit: Barbaraellen Koch

Editor’s note: This story was updated Friday morning to include comment from New Suffolk School board president Tony Dill.

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