PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - A Superior Court Judge is deciding if a Providence teacher fired in 2006 for "repeated failures" should be given hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay plus interest and be allowed to teach again, a Target 12 Investigation reveals.
Bernard McCrink, a longtime math teacher at the troubled Mt. Pleasant High School in Providence, was terminated by the school department in 2006. Since then, his case has gone on a six year legal journal through the school department, the school board, the Rhode Island Department of Education and ultimately the state court system.
City Officials said the cost and time spent on upholding the firing has mounted through the years and they are using cases like this one to educate administrators on how to tighten up on the termination process.
McCrink's lawyer, State Representative John DeSimone, D-Providence, and the Providence Teacher's Union did not return repeated calls for comment.
A Long Legal Journey
The information used in this report was taken from public documents including the case file from Providence Superior Court and a written decision by the RI Dept. of Education issued on Oct. 20, 2009.
The city hired Bernard McCrink in 1990 and he became a tenured math teacher three years later. Despite a paid suspension from 1995 to 1997 – for reasons not spelled out in public documents – McCrink taught Alegbra II to Mt. Pleasant High School Students.
In their attempt to terminate McCrink in 2006, the Providence School Department cited five grounds for dismissal:
- Failing to report an absence and leave a lesson plan for the substitute
- Again failure to leave a lesson plan when absent
- Failure to adequately supervise computer use in his classroom
- Inappropriate discussions with students involving exotic dancing
- Solicitation of bribes from students in exchange for grades.
The school department said because of McCrink's poor classroom supervision, a student surfed for porn on his watch. That student testified before the school board that McCrink was in the classroom when he went online to watch porn.
The court file also states: "The student who had 'searched porn' testified that Mr. McCrink would tell 'funny stories' involving a friend of his who had been 'in the porn business' at one time."
The school department also said McCrink had a spotty employment history. He received a 10-day suspension that was whittled down to three days after it went through binding arbitration. The suspension was given for "repeated failures" over a four year period to leave written materials for substitutes when absent.
He was also given a letter of reprimand for using a racial epithet during class and McCrink called out sick 45 days in one year because of a heart ailment. McCrink received another written warning in 2005 for again failing to leave material for a substitute.
McCrink's lawyer, however, poked holes in the school department's claims.
"From the outset, the School Board's dismissal of Mr. McCrink was beset by procedural flaws which render his termination for the 2006-2007 school year ineffective," DeSimone argued in written material.
He said a computer expert they hired revealed the porn sites were accessed at a time when McCrink was not in the classroom.
DeSimone also said the bribery allegation stemmed from a joke and "there was absolutely no evidence whatsoever presented to support the contention that Mr. McCrink had solicited bribes and favors from students in exchange for passing grades or excusals from class," the documents state.
Two witnesses called before the school board testified that McCrink's discussion of exotic dancers was in the context of a warning.
"Mr. McCrink cautioned students that exotic dancing was not a good career choice," the document states.
In the end, the district's firing of McCrink boiled down to the two days the school department said he failed to leave lesson plans.
After hours of testimony and hearings, the Providence School Board unanimously upheld McCrink's firing in 2007.
MCrink then appealed to the Rhode Island Department of Education, launching another round in an already lengthy termination process.
Two year later, the state upheld his firing stating McCrink's excuses were not "credible" and his employment history was a consideration.
"To those who would argue that Mr. McCrink should have been given one more opportunity by the School Board to conform his conduct to the expectations [...] the record in this case is that it did so," states the written decision. "The School Board has demonstrated on this record that it made extraordinary efforts in the way of progressive discipline of Mr. McCrink, without success."
Now, nearly six years after the Providence School Department terminated McCrink, city lawyers are still arguing their case. McCrink filed an appeal with Superior Court. The massive case file is now in the hands of Associate Justice Susan McGuirl who will ultimately decide whether or not the school department had just cause for firing McCrink.
If she rules in favor of the terminated teacher, the city – already grappling with punishing budget deficits – would be on the hook for six years worth of back pay, plus interest as well as legal fees. A city official with direct knowledge of the case but asked not to be identified, said conservative estimates are that taxpayers would have to pay upwards of $600,000 for salary and interest alone.
Tough to terminate
Though not familiar with the McCrink case, Providence City Councilman and former School Board Member Samuel Zurier said the process of terminating a teacher can be onerous.
"Currently the review process involves several layers one on top of the other and the result is that these decisions can take years and years," Zurier said.
Zurier said he is concerned that the case could mean a large payout from a city and school budget that simply has no more money.
"It certainly disappoints me. The district has a right to get these decisions decided properly and so does the teacher," Zurier said. "I would think that Mr. McCrink would not want to be in this limbo. That's not good for him."
The McCrink case is far from the only one in "limbo."
In 2011, Target 12 obtained an internal memo from the Providence School Department that revealed several teachers were still on the payroll, though not teaching, because the administration failed to take proper steps to get rid of them.
The investigation also revealed statewide, only 37 tenured teachers were terminated for cause in the last decade. The numbers show 21 of the 32 school districts never fired a tenured teacher in the last ten years.
Target 12 has learned the city solicitor's office is working with principals to better educate them on how to ensure they are reaching the necessary legal benchmarks to remove a teacher from service in a timely fashion.
In a statement, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras said while the majority of teachers are effective, underperforming ones need to be "held accountable."
"We also need to speed the process for terminating teachers who have consistently and egregiously failed to do their jobs," Taveras said in the statement. "Our students and the taxpayers shouldn't bear the burden of a system that fails to hold bad teachers accountable."
Copyright WPRI 12
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