March 4, 2010

Teacher gets year off without pay

EDWARD D

— By . MURPHY

Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD — The School Committee will see whether the state takes action against a teacher who is accused of leaking Maine Educational Assessment test questions before it decides the teacher's fate beyond a yearlong unpaid suspension.

Joanne Twomey, Biddeford's mayor and School Committee chair, said Tuesday that Superintendent Sarah-Jane Poli told the committee about the suspension a month ago. The panel took no further action.

''I'm not happy with the whole incident -- that someone would take children and short-change them,'' Twomey said. ''I personally think that the person should have been fired, but I didn't make that decision.''

The state Department of Education has invalidated some of the school department's MEA scores because of the teacher's disclosures.

The teacher's mother, School Committee member Peggy Bean, received a written police warning about criminal threatening after she reportedly told a newspaper reporter that if the paper printed her daughter's name, ''you're dead.''

The weekly Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach Courier went ahead and printed the name of the teacher, Barbara Fortier, and the paper's editor lodged a complaint with Twomey. Bean then received the warning from Biddeford police.

The paper's reporter, Gillian Graham, declined to press charges.

David Connerty-Marin, a spokesman for the Department of Education, said the state began looking into Biddeford's eighth-grade MEA science results during the summer.

He said he didn't know whether the results themselves or some other information prompted the investigation, but the department eventually decided that improper information had been shared with students by a teacher who took part in a review of the test's questions. The state invalidated those results.

Biddeford won't be sanctioned for the incident, Connerty-Marin said, but without the MEA results, it won't be able to judge its science teaching for the year.

He said the state will not release the name of the teacher. He did confirm that Fortier was part of a review panel that looked at questions in early 2009 to make sure they were aligned with the subject matter of interest in the test.

Connerty-Marin said Fortier is certified by the state through 2012. He declined to say whether the state is considering any discipline.

If the state revokes a teacher's certification, the department confirms that it has taken action but won't say why, he said, citing confidentiality rules on personnel matters.

Fortier doesn't have a listed telephone number and couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday.

Twomey said the superintendent normally informs the School Committee of disciplinary actions but the committee rarely gets involved in the decisions.

''We only get involved if there's a gray area,'' she said.

Twomey said she asked why the teacher wasn't fired and was told that such a step generally leads to long proceedings involving lawyers for the school department and the teachers union.

The committee hasn't addressed the issue of Bean's ''you're dead'' comment to the reporter, said Twomey, who said she got the complaint call from the Courier's editor and referred the matter to police.

She also spoke to Bean, Twomey said, and apologized to the reporter.

''I do believe it was another mother protecting her child,'' Twomey said of Bean's comment.

The Courier's editor, Andrea Nemitz, the wife of Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz, said she was satisfied with the way Twomey and the police handled her complaint.

Bean did not return a message left on her home answering machine.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com

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