Northern New York Newspapers
NNY Business
NNY Living
Wed., Oct. 7
Serving the communities of Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties, New York
In print daily. Online always.
Related Stories

State Appellate Court upholds Edwards-Knox decision to fire bus driver


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 Court’s Appellate Division, which ruled the district’s 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 Court’s decision supports the board’s 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 she’s 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. Thornton’s 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 supervisor’s position because those duties are not part of her work as a bus driver.

The panel of four justices said Mrs. Thornton’s actions raise concerns about her “conscientiousness, judgment and professionalism.”

According to the court’s 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 district’s 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 district’s students was jeopardized by petitioner’s warnings to drivers of the dates of random drug and alcohol tests.

“Thus, we find that petitioner’s 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 wouldn’t know days in advance because I didn’t know,” she said. “It was hours, not days in advance, and it wouldn’t 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.”

Commenting rules:
  1. Stick to the topic of the article/letter/editorial.
  2. When responding to issues raised by other commenters, do not engage in personal attacks or name-calling.
  3. Comments that include profanity/obscenities or are libelous in nature will be removed without warning.
Violators' commenting privileges may be revoked indefinitely. By commenting you agree to our full Terms of Use.
Syracuse Football Tickets Giveaway
Connect with Us
WDT News FeedsWDT on FacebookWDT on TwitterWDT on InstagramWDT for iOS: iPad, iPhone, and iPod touchWDT for Android
Showcase of Homes
Showcase of Homes