PHILADELPHIA – A Philadelphia principal who was fired in connection with a standardized test cheating scandal may get her job back after a three-judge panel ruled in her favor Thursday.
The panel found no evidence that former Tilden Middle School principal Michelle Burns was involved in cheating discovered at the school and ruled her 2014 termination was an overly harsh punishment for “mere negligence,” Philly.com reports.
“Although the cheating which occurred at Tilden is abhorrent and must be rooted out, the arbitrator found only that Burns failed to uncover it and prevent it,” according to the Commonwealth Court ruling. “Thus, we cannot conclude an award reinstating an administrator after finding her guilty of mere negligence violates a fundamental public policy.”
The decision supports an arbitrator’s earlier finding that was based in part on Burns’ clean record throughout her 18 years in the district, which failed to produce witnesses to implicate her in the cheating scandal.
The case stems from a 2012 state investigation that uncovered widespread cheating in dozens of the city’s traditional and charter schools that resulted in criminal charges against seven principals and teachers, according to the news site.
As Judge P. Kevin Brobson noted in the Commonwealth Court’s opinion, an analysis by the state Department of Education concluded that all Pennsylvania System School Assessment tests taken by students at Tilden were doctored in 2009 and 2010. The doctoring involved “Beneficial erasures” where an incorrect answer is erased and the correct one is marked instead.
District officials accused Burns of either abetting the test manipulation or demonstrating negligence by not detecting and preventing it. A district official stressed that the cheating stopped the year Burns left Tilden.
The district fired Burns in January 2014, and her union challenged the decision in a labor grievance. An arbitrator found her termination to be a “disproportional” punishment for her negligence, and ruled that she should have been suspended without pay for 60 days and reinstated to a principal position.
The district appealed the decision and a county judge sided with school officials, prompting Burns’ union to appeal to the Commonwealth Court.
“This is going on three years that my life has been turned upside down,” Burns, 45, told Philly.com. “I’m ecstatic.”
Her union, the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, is also “extremely happy,” CASA president Robin Cooper said.
“She should have been returned to her position months ago,” Cooper said. “This was a principal who was unjustly terminated. There was no evidence in regard to this principal being involved in any type of cheating.”
District spokesman Lee Whack declined to comment about the ruling, or whether the district will appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court, Philly.com reports.