Former Granville teachers’ union chief suspended for misconduct

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A science teacher with more than 20 years on the job has been suspended without pay for two weeks by the Granville Central School District for misconduct last May when she was president of the Granville Teachers Association.

NYVTmedia learned through a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request that Lisa Davidson has been found guilty on three disciplinary charges, including “conduct unbecoming a teacher,” by intimidating a new teacher in the district, P.J. Sommo, and distributing flyers to teachers urging them to support certain candidates for the school board, a political activity banned when school is in session.

The district had sought an eight-week suspension without pay but a hearing officer who heard the case found mitigating factors, including that Davidson had been deemed “proficient in each of the 24 categories of review in her classroom observation from seven separate evaluations.”

Davidson’s unpaid suspension will begin March 14 and she can return on March 28.

The official hearings were conducted by hearing officer Rocco Scanza in three sessions in September, October and November of last year.

The charge transmittal form included counts of misconduct and/or conduct unbecoming of a teacher and two separate counts of misconduct and/or conduct unbecoming a teacher and/or insubordination stemming from incidents last May.

The district did not comment beyond announcing the suspension of Davidson using her employee number without using her name. NYVTmedia reached out to Davidson for a comment via email on Feb. 11 and received no response.

‘Harassed, intimidated’

In the hearing officer’s report, Scanza said that Davidson had acted in a harassing and intimidating nature toward fellow science teacher Sommo after Sommo had a meeting with administration to complain about Davidson’s prior behavior and criticism of Sommo teaching classes for which he was not certified.

“Having reviewed the record evidence, I conclude that Ms. Davidson’s conduct resulted in Mr. Sommo’s legitimate concern that he was being harassed and intimidated. As such, Ms. Davidson’s actions do constitute misconduct,” Scanza said.

Background information and testimonies cited in the report showed that Sommo, a new hire at the high school for the 2020-2021 school year who had been laid off by the Schenectady School District because of Covid-19, had participated in a science department meeting on April 26.

“During that meeting, Ms. Davidson raised two issues regarding Mr. Sommo. One issue involved a Teacher Improvement Plan (TIP) that had been put in place for Mr. Sommo. The second issue was the fact that Mr. Sommo was teaching courses outside of his certification,” Scanza said.

“In the meeting Mr. Sommo explained that his teaching assignments had been appropriately approved by administration. He suggested to Ms. Davidson that she speak with his building principal, Lisa Meade, and his GTA building representative, Ms. Conlin, on the topic. (It should be noted that Ms. Conlin is currently serving as president of the GTA).”

Towards the conclusion of another science department meeting on May 12, Davidson informed Sommo she had submitted a written complaint to the New York State United Teachers regarding Sommo’s certification status.

Acting for union

In Davidson’s perspective, she said she was speaking to Sommo “in her capacity as union president.”

“She was concerned that the district was taking advantage of his status as a new teacher by assigning him to teach courses outside his areas of certification,” Davidson’s attorneys Elizabeth R. Schuster and Robert T. Reilly said in the report. “She was also concerned that the district was interrogating Mr. Sommo to undercut Ms. Davidson and NYSUT.”

The report states conflict was heightened after Sommo had consulted with superintendent Tom McGurl, principal Lisa Meade, district Title IX ADA Harassment Officer Cathy Somich and fellow GTA member Kim Rath following the second science department meeting.

The report says Davidson had been informed on May 13 by colleague Alicia Lacrosse that Sommo had just met with administration in regard to Davidson’s text messages to NYSUT.

“Ms. Davidson immediately went to Mr. Sommo’s classroom approximately three or four minutes after his arrival and she stepped into his doorway. It appeared to Mr. Sommo that Ms. Davidson wanted to speak with him. He advised her that it was not the proper time or location to have a conversation,” the report said.

Davidson: ‘I know’

“Ms. Davidson then lowered her face mask and silently mouthed the words ‘I know’ to Mr. Sommo. Mr. Sommo was at first ‘confused’ and ‘intimidated’ by this.”

The “I know” was interpreted to mean that Davidson was aware of Sommo’s meeting with administration.

At Sommo’s request following a separate meeting with Somich, McGurl sent an email to Davidson directing her to not have any contact with Sommo unless McGurl approved that interaction to happen with a GTA member present.

“The district adds that Ms. Davidson’s attempt to confront Mr. Sommo in his classroom after learning that he had met with the district superintendent was suspicious in nature,” Granville school district attorney Anthony J. Brock said. “By immediately going to Mr. Sommo’s room after his meeting and mouthing the words “I know” without providing any other words to clarify her message, it is clear she intended to send the message that she was aware of the meeting and was unhappy about it.”

Scanza said he found Sommo’s testimony “most persuasive” that he felt his newly acquired job’s security was at severe risk.

Sommo testified:

“It made me completely uneasy as to what could have happened. Now, remember, I’m already — at this point, I was already on a TIPS plan and frankly, to give a little bit more context, keep in mind that I got this job at Granville at the very tail end of the summer. I had come from Schenectady due to the COVID situation, essentially, my job had been cut. So, I have my livelihood to worry about. That was really the thing that was forefront in my mind. And now here I am basically being a dart that is being thrown between the union and administration.”

NYVTmedia reached out to Sommo for a comment via email on Feb. 11 and received no response.

Union flyers distributed

Davidson was also found guilty of giving flyers of union-supported Board of Education candidates to union building representatives at Granville Elementary School (Cara Pilch) and Mary J. Tanner School (Karen Tourge) to distribute across both buildings on May 14.

Davidson said she believed it was in her responsibilities to inform GTA members of potential board candidates and their stances prior to the election. At the time Davidson was serving as chief negotiator for the union in contract talks with the district.

Said Scanza:

“Ms. Davidson brought the flyers to Ms. Pilch and Ms. Tourge. During the hearing, Ms. Davidson admitted that in hindsight and in looking at the district policy, her actions did amount to politicking. Respondent (Davidson) argues Ms. Davidson never had any intent to violate school policy. Moreover, the act of distributing the flyers was a union activity undertaken on behalf of the GTA and was not undertaken to support her ‘personal’ political beliefs as the policy proscribes.

“On its face, Respondent’s argument has merit. In her role as union president, Ms. Davidson had the responsibility of communicating to her membership about the upcoming school board election. However, she should have known her actions might violate the aforementioned policies.

Board policies violated

“It was her responsibility to inform building representatives Pilch and Tourge that the flyers had to be distributed after school hours and off school grounds. She failed to do so. Accordingly, I find Ms. Davidson guilty of violating Board of Education policies 3272 and 6430.”

However, Scanza found the district’s allegations of Davidson interrupting Pilch and Tourge’s teaching responsibilities by placing the fliers in faculty mailboxes to be invalid.

Emily Jenkins (left) and Joel Davidson (right) with GTA-supported candidate fliers on May 18, 2021 outside Granville Junior/Senior High School during the Board of Education election.

The Board of Education election on May 18, four days after Davidson distributed the fliers to Pilch and Tourge, saw Davidson’s husband, Joel Davidson and now-former board member Emily Jenkins distribute fliers of union-supported candidates to voters as they arrived at Granville Junior/Senior High School.

Three separate police agencies arrived on scene to handle the situation that became heated when it was debated on how close a candidate could be to the voting area.

“In reviewing the evidence, including Ms. Davidson’s overall record with the District, I have determined that a suspension of two weeks without pay is the appropriate penalty. Her infractions were serious in nature. However, she admitted that in retrospect, her actions in distributing political flyers were improper,” Scanza said.

“Ms. Davidson is no longer the union’s president and she indicated during the hearing that she hopes to retire within the next two years. Moreover, Respondent’s witnesses also conceded that the act of distributing political flyers in school mailboxes is now understood as a violation of established policies. In short, lessons have been learned. Accordingly, an eight-week suspension without pay would appear to be more punitive in nature than the record can support.”

Davidson has been teaching at Granville for 23 years.