Sued by ex-superintendent and ex-wife
By Jeff Simms
A Beacon High School teacher has asked the school system to reimburse his legal costs as he fights a lawsuit filed against him by the district’s former superintendent and the former Beacon Teachers’ Association president, who is the defendant’s ex-wife.
The school system’s insurance carrier, New York Schools Insurance Reciprocal, has denied the request; it is unclear, however, where the Board of Education stands on the issue.
In a confusing sequence of events at the end of the April 26 school board meeting, Beacon board members failed to pass a resolution denying Robert Atwell’s request for “defense and indemnification” in the lawsuit filed against him by Barbara Walkley, the ex-superintendent, and Kimberly Pilla, Atwell’s ex-wife.
The resolution was situated on the agenda just after the consideration of meeting minutes, personnel changes and committee recommendations — administrative items that are often approved with little discussion.
The failure to adopt the resolution denying Atwell’s request was preceded by another motion — this one made by board member Anthony White, to table the vote on the resolution — which also failed. Board members Frank Garnot, Jose Munoz and Georgia Patchen were not present for the meeting, making it difficult for either motion to receive the necessary five-vote majority.
The was no discussion regarding the merits of Atwell’s request, only whether it would be voted upon that night or at a later date. Because the nearly five-hour meeting ended with neither motion passing, the resolution is expected to be on the agenda again at the school board’s next meeting.
On Wednesday, Mark Reisman, Atwell’s attorney, said that his client’s request was for the reimbursement of legal fees that will ultimately total “thousands of dollars.”
Walkley and Pilla filed suit against Atwell in February in U.S. District Court, alleging that Atwell, a math teacher, had defamed Walkley, who resigned as superintendent in January, and Pilla, who resigned as the head of the teachers’ association in August 2015. Pilla is also a physical education teacher and Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA) at Beacon High School.
Atwell and Pilla were divorced in June 2015 after 15 years of marriage. The school board on Tuesday approved paid family medical leave for Pilla from April 18 to June 24 of this year.
Walkley and Pilla’s suit, which seeks unspecified monetary damages, alleges that Atwell violated the federal Stored Communication Act by accessing several of Pilla’s password-protected email accounts and then releasing a series of private emails that Walkley and Pilla say subjected them to defamation.
Atwell allegedly used the emails to “maliciously” accuse Walkley and Pilla of “corruption and improprieties, inflaming an entire community against them,” the filing states. The suit further alleges that some of the emails were “doctored,” and that the “foreseeable public response to these falsehoods” caused Walkley and Pilla to resign their positions, leaving their personal and professional reputations “in tatters.”
After assisting interim chief Harvey Hilburgh and then serving in an interim capacity herself, Walkley was named Beacon’s superintendent in February 2015. Her tenure, however, was marred by controversy.
In August 2015, 27 Beacon teachers were reassigned within the district, causing a number of parents to question whether the moves were political in nature. Last December, district parent Melissa Rutkoske filed a petition with the state Department of Education that called for the dismissal of Walkley and school district attorney Michael Lambert.
Rutkoske’s petition cited a number of emails between Pilla, Walkley and other district officials, and alleged that a relationship between Walkley and Pilla had resulted in “unethical, inappropriate and illegal conduct.”
Walkley and Pilla’s lawsuit describes the Jan. 11, 2016, school board meeting — which was attended by nearly 400 parents and community members — as the “final act” that led to Walkley’s resignation. When she left 10 days later, after roughly 12 months in office, Walkley became the fifth fulltime (non-interim) Beacon superintendent to resign since longtime district chief Vito DiCesare retired in 2006.
Reisman said on Wednesday that Atwell “strenuously denies” the charges against him.
Reisman intends to file a motion to dismiss Walkley and Pilla’s suit. That request must be made by June 3, he said, although it’s unknown when a judge will make a decision on the motion.
The pending school board resolution states that the district’s insurance carrier has determined that the “coverage” requested by Atwell is not afforded “pursuant to the district’s school board legal liability and commercial general liability policies based upon the fact that the alleged acts did not occur within the scope of (the) employee’s employment in the district.”
Furthermore, the resolution states, the Board of Education “has concluded that there is no other legal basis to defend and indemnify” Atwell.
Current teachers’ association head John Burns disagrees, saying that Atwell, a 20-plus-year veteran of the Beacon school system, deserves more support from district officials.
“(Atwell’s) request was not just reasonable, it was spot on. He brought concerns to the Board of Education regarding inappropriate actions,” Burns said. “In that circumstance he’s definitely entitled to indemnification.”