Court orders reinstatement of Philly principal fired for cheating at her school

A Pennsylvania appeals court has ordered that Philadelphia principal Michelle Burns, fired amid a cheating scandal, get her job back. Burns had worked at Tilden Middle School.

Commonwealth Court on Thursday ruled that the Philadelphia School District wrongfully fired a principal  in connection with the statewide cheating scandal in 2014 and ordered that the district reinstate her.

The three-judge panel agreed with an arbitrator that Michelle Burns, who had been principal of Tilden Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia, had failed to uncover cheating and prevent it, but had not engaged in cheating.

 “This is going on three years that my life has been turned upside down,” said Burns, 45. “I’m ecstatic.”

 Burns, who said she had an unblemished record during her 18 years with the district as a teacher and administrator, noted that the district had presented no witnesses during her termination  hearing who implicated her in cheating at Tilden.

She was the principal of Kensington Urban Education Academy when she was fired. The school is now known as Kensington High School.

 The district appealed to Common Pleas Court after the arbitrator ordered Burns' reinstatement in 2015. When a judge sided with the district, the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, the union that represents district administrators, took the case to Commonwealth Court.

 In Thursday’s ruling, Commonwealth Court reversed the lower court and ordered the district to rehire Burns.

 “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,” the court said. Firing,  the opinion said, was too harsh a penalty for “mere negligence.”

 “We are extremely happy,” CASA president Robin Cooper said. “She should have been returned to her position months ago. This was a principal who was unjustly terminated. There was no evidence in regard to this principal being involved in any type of cheating.”

 In addition to reinstatement, Burns is due back pay minus wages from a 60-day suspension for failing to detect the cheating.

 District spokesman Lee Whack said no one was immediately available to comment on the ruling or say whether the district would appeal to the state Supreme Court.

In all, 53 district schools and seven city charter schools were investigated by the state in 2012 for possible tampering on standardized tests. Seven principals and teachers were criminally charged and several others were disciplined. 

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