The long and tumultuous battle between the Jamestown Public Schools Board of Education and former member Dr. Deann Nelson has come to an end - again.
Interim state Education Commissioner Carole Huxley recently upheld Dr. Nelson's 2006 removal from the JPS Board of Education, saying that the challenge of removal and request for reinstatement were ''moot'' because Dr. Nelson's scheduled term of office has since expired anyway.
Even if the claims were not considered moot, though, the interim commissioner stated that she would have dismissed them on their merits.
''To constitute grounds for removal pursuant to Education Law 1709(18), the 'official misconduct' must clearly relate to a board member's official duties, either because of the alleged unauthorized exercise of the member's powers or the intentional failure to exercise those powers to the detriment of the school district,'' reads interim Commissioner Huxley's statement. ''Based on my review of the record, including the hearing transcript, I find sufficient proof to establish grounds for (Dr. Nelson's) removal.''
THE BATTLE OVER IEPS
Dr. Nelson was elected to the JPS Board of Education as a write-in candidate in 2003 and was re-elected to a three-year term in 2004. Controversy began in September 2004, when the board passed a resolution to not allow individual board members to read Individualized Education Programs of special education students - a resolution Dr. Nelson voted against. The resolution was passed on the grounds that it would reduce the potential of lawsuits against the board.
In response to the resolution, Dr. Nelson filed a complaint with the state Office of Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities, asking the office to conduct a thorough investigation of the district's special education programs and procedural compliance.
''The board wants to rubber-stamp IEPs with very limited information,'' she said at the time, adding that she had personally read more than 700 JPS IEP reports to that point. ''I don't think this is ethical or logical.''
Dr. Nelson sent the complaint and copies of reports to several media outlets, violating the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Dr. Nelson later claimed she did not knowingly violate the students' privacy, as she was unaware that the reports contained student identification numbers, believing that the district's director of pupil personnel had redacted all confidential information.
At its next meeting, the JPS board passed two resolutions on which Dr. Nelson did not vote because she walked out of the meeting. The first resolution was to take the necessary steps to facilitate and assist the VESID investigation, while the second required Dr. Nelson to return all originals and copies of IEP reports - a resolution with which she never complied.
The VESID investigation was conducted later in 2004, finding the district in violation of two minor issues, but not the major allegation from Dr. Nelson's complaint.
In May 2005, Dr. Nelson filed a lawsuit against the district for the right to read IEP reports. In the suit, she claimed the board's resolution prevented her from her duties to serve the voters who elected her. The lawsuit was dismissed in January 2006 on the grounds that the resolution did not preclude her from representing the interests of her constituents.
The board began the process to remove Dr. Nelson for official misconduct in December 2005. The board found her guilty on seven of nine charges - and on two of three counts on an eighth - at a public hearing in June 2006 and voted to remove her from the board at that time.
Dr. Nelson filed for appeal with the state Education Commissioner in July 2006, at which time a request for interim relief was denied.
'SUFFICIENT BASIS FOR REMOVAL'
Interim commissioner Huxley ruled that Dr. Nelson's refusal to disclose the identities of the people with whom she shared the reports, even after being advised that the information was confidential and being ordered by the board to do so, violated her duties as a board member.
The reaction also cites Dr. Nelson's refusal to return the documents as sufficient basis for her removal. Citing General Municipal Law, the interim commissioner's response reads that Dr. Nelson violated regulations by disclosing the confidential information and then retaining it for her own purposes.
''(Dr. Nelson) had no right to retain the information or copies of documents that she obtained in the course of her duties as a board member for personal research purposes,'' the decision reads. ''(She) did not appeal (the board's) actions, but unilaterally defied its directives.''
The interim commissioner also dismissed Dr. Nelson's request to annul the board's resolution about IEPs, saying that VESID had already determined that the resolution was not in violation of any education law. The response states that the commissioner declined to consider Dr. Nelson's claims with respect to the specific board resolution.
''An appeal to the commissioner pursuant to Education Law 310 is not the proper forum for review of a determination by a state Education Department employee,'' the decision reads. ''In light of the foregoing disposition, I need not address (Dr. Nelson's) remaining contentions.''
LONG WAIT, SHORT REPLY
When contacted for response to the interim commissioner's decision by The Post-Journal, Dr. Nelson said she was disappointed that the education department took more than three years to issue its ruling - thus allowing the end of her scheduled term to come and go, resulting in the ''moot'' decision.
''I was disappointed that Commissioner (Richard) Mills retired before making a decision, and that many of the issues I wrote about in my decision were not judged upon at all,'' Dr. Nelson said. ''There were a number of other issues that were not even addressed.''
Mills stepped down from the post in June 2009.
According to the Frequently Asked Questions page on the state Education Department Office of Counsel Web site, the commissioner's legal staff attempts to issue decisions eight to 10 months after petitions are filed. ''However,'' the site reads, ''hundreds of complex appeals are filed each year, so it is impossible to guarantee a specific date.''
While Dr. Nelson said that she submitted a large amount of documentation with her appeal, she still found the three-year-plus wait to be puzzling and the ruling to be lacking in substance.
''I thought the reply was very short for all the material that I submitted,'' she said.
After waiting so long for the result, the former board member said she is likely ''at the end of the road'' with the JPS board and has no aspirations of attempting to get re-elected.
''When they pass resolutions that prevent you from doing your job properly, I don't see any point in running,'' she said.
The decision of the interim commissioner, Dr. Nelson said, is a disservice both to Jamestown Public Schools students and to future board members who may challenge similar issues.
''One of my requests (in the appeal) was to annul the resolution, and that issue was not even touched,'' she said. ''It's a disservice to any future board member who is interested in children and what's happening to children in our district.''