RUSSELL A decision by the Edwards-Knox Central School District Board of Education to fire a longtime bus driver has been upheld by the state Supreme Courts Appellate Division, which ruled the districts decision was justified.
Rita F. Thornton, 50, of Edwards, filed legal action against the board that claimed her 2011 firing was excessive punishment.
I just want my job back, Mrs. Thornton said Wednesday. I have had very good community support.
She said she plans to hire a new attorney and continue her legal battle.
The firing, she said, was prompted by a personality clash with district Superintendent Suzanne L. Kelly.
Everything was blown out of proportion, Mrs. Thornton said. The very same things I was fired for are still going on.
Ms. Kelly said the Appellate Courts decision supports the boards decision to fire Mrs. Thornton, who was employed by the district for about 22 years.
It validates what was done and that proper procedures were followed, the superintendent said.
Ms. Kelly said shes unaware of other bus employees violating record-keeping or other procedures.
After working as a bus driver since 1989, Mrs. Thornton was promoted to senior bus driver in 2006. The position entailed supervisory and administrative duties including record keeping.
In 2010, the district eliminated the senior bus driver position and Mrs. Thornton returned to her job as a bus driver.
District officials allege that after she returned to the bus driver job, they discovered she had failed to complete required records for the 2009-10 school year.
After an investigation, the district charged her with nine counts of incompetence and misconduct for allegedly failing to properly complete and maintain records required by several state agencies.
She also was accused of providing bus drivers with advance notice of random drug and alcohol testing and sending a disparaging email about the school district to transportation supervisors in other districts.
Following a hearing pursuant to Civil Service Law Article 75, a hearing officer found Mrs. Thornton guilty of seven charges and recommended she be discharged. The district adopted the findings and fired Mrs. Thornton in January 2011.
In response, Mrs. Thornton filed an Article 78 proceeding against the district that was dismissed by state Supreme Court. Through an attorney provided by her union, Paul Clayton, Albany, Mrs. Thornton appealed that decision.
In its written decision, the Appellate Court said it was unpersuaded by Mrs. Thorntons argument that in light of her unblemished record as a bus driver she should not be fired for actions that allegedly took place while she was still in a supervisors position because those duties are not part of her work as a bus driver.
The panel of four justices said Mrs. Thorntons actions raise concerns about her conscientiousness, judgment and professionalism.
According to the courts written decision, Mrs. Thornton acknowledged before she left the senior bus driver position in August 2010 that she had forgotten to maintain certain required certifications for the school districts bus drivers for nearly a year. As a senior bus driver, Mrs. Thornton was paid about $38,000, with her salary dropping to an estimated $17,000 when she returned to her bus driver position.
Instead of maintaining the records, Mrs. Thornton wrote a note to her successor, put it in a drawer and left for vacation, according to the Appellate Court ruling.
This failure, not discovered until just before school was scheduled to reopen in September 2010, necessitated last-minute testing and certification of the drivers on an emergency basis and nearly prevented the opening of school, the decision states.
It also placed the district at risk of losing state transportation aid and placed the district at risk of fines and other legal and financial consequences, according to school district employees who testified at the hearing.
Most seriously, the Appellate Court wrote, the safety of the school districts students was jeopardized by petitioners warnings to drivers of the dates of random drug and alcohol tests.
Thus, we find that petitioners termination was neither disproportionate to her conduct nor to the risk of harm it posed to the school district and we will not disturb it, the decision states.
Mrs. Thornton said she told bus drivers a few hours in advance that they would be tested for drugs and alcohol, which would not have affected their results.
They wouldnt know days in advance because I didnt know, she said. It was hours, not days in advance, and it wouldnt have made a difference.
Ms. Thornton said some bus drivers are still being notified in advance of their drug and alcohol testing.
Ms. Kelly said, No such concerns have been brought to my attention.