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New Suffolk school teacher’s federal suit dismissed

02/23/2018 6:00 AM |

The suit filed in federal court by Martha Kennelly against the New Suffolk School District following its decision to abolish her position in June 2015 was dismissed by a judge last Wednesday. 

Two days earlier, New York State Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia also dismissed Ms. Kennelly’s appeal, which asked that she be reinstated to the classroom. Ms. Kennelly has been working offsite developing curriculum this school year.

In the federal suit, which centered on issues including age discrimination, the judge ruled that Ms. Kennelly was excessed due to the financial burden paying her salary would cause the district, rather than being let go due to her age.

According to that decision, the New Suffolk Common School District “proffered legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for the creation of the hybrid tenure area which ultimately resulted in the abolishment of [Ms. Kennelly’s] teaching position.”

In an interview Tuesday, New Suffolk school board president Tony Dill said the decision was “nice in the sense that we don’t have to worry about some future negative verdict that we have to settle a big expense over.”

However, he said the federal ruling doesn’t change anything for the district with regard to an upcoming vote on sending pre-K to sixth-grade students to other local districts.

“The choices that we have to evaluate for next year really haven’t changed,” Mr. Dill said. “This didn’t open up some new option for us that wasn’t existing before. In that sense, to me, it doesn’t have a great short-term relevance to us. It’s nice long term, but not so much in the short term.”

Ms. Kennelly declined to comment. Her attorney, Frank Blangiardo, said “we’re just getting warmed up,” referencing an upcoming EEOC mediation and a claim filed with the New York Supreme Court in November.

In her dismissal of the appeal to the State Education Department, Ms. Elia ruled that Ms. Kennelly couldn’t prove that the district’s actions were retaliatory against her. In her appeal, Ms. Kennelly also alleged that developing curriculum was outside her tenure area, as it didn’t include classroom instruction.

However, Ms. Kennelly developed curriculum during the 2014-15 school year, when she first returned to New Suffolk from the Mid East Suffolk Teacher Center, information that led Ms. Elia to dismiss Ms. Kennelly’s claim.

“We are disappointed by the Commissioner’s decision,” said Michael Starvaggi, Ms. Kennelly’s attorney in that case, in a statement. “Although the decision cites ample evidence of disparate treatment, it does not reach what we feel is the obvious conclusion that the motivation for this treatment was retaliatory. We are exploring our legal recourse at this time.”

The two decisions came just days after a New Suffolk Board of Education meeting at which the public raised numerous questions about district finances, including a $17,000 raise given to a teaching assistant. There was also concern about whether the district’s could remain open in the future if residents of the Mattituck-Cutchogue and/or Southold districts protested that New

Suffolk residents pay lower taxes for their kids to attend the same schools.

At the meeting, which was recorded and later posted on Facebook, community members presented the school board with a petition asking that they file a malpractice suit against the district’s attorney for advising them to create the hybrid tenure track, which Ms. Elia said was “not permitted” in her August decision requiring that Ms. Kennelly be reinstated in the district and paid nearly $300,000 in back pay.

Mr. Dill said this week that, following the federal dismissal, the board doesn’t believe the malpractice suit is warranted, but is “taking steps to secure the services of a mediator.”

Also at that meeting, school principal Chris Gallagher said he’d met with the superintendents of both Mattituck-Cutchogue and Southold districts and that more meetings were set for the upcoming week. Additionally, on Monday, March 12, parents, board members, long-range planning committee members, one staff member and Mr. Gallagher will be able to visit each district.

Attendees will be able to learn more about each district and provide the board with feedback on which one they’d prefer their children to attend. Ultimately, the Board of Education will make the final decision, which they expect to announce before the public vote on March 27.

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