Official: Probe found no misdeeds

OPPENHEIM – The state Education Department investigated grading practices at the former Oppenheim-Ephratah Central School District but found no improper conduct, according to the acting superintendent of the now-merged Oppenheim-Ephratah-St. Johnsville Central School District.

The investigation, however, did uncover two problems at the former district, said Acting OESJ Superintendent Thomas Gallagher.

Gallagher recently presented some of the state’s findings to the district’s Board of Education.

He said the investigation into past grading and promotion practices began in November after former Oppenheim-Ephratah-St. Johnsville district Superintendent Laura Lawrence raised concerns.

Lawrence was the first superintendent of OESJ. The two school districts merged for the 2013-14 school year. Lawrence was placed on paid leave in November for undisclosed reasons and resigned in April. In a settlement agreement, she will receive about $250,000 over the next two years, plus health insurance.

Gallagher said the state investigation was unrelated to Lawrence’s employment situation, but no district officials have said why Lawrence was placed on leave.

Gallagher said seven accusations were levied against the former Oppenheim-Ephratah district.

He said the district was accused of letting required courses for graduation be assessed as a pass/fail grade, changing scores lower than a 50, offering online credit recovery courses, giving credit for study hall courses, awarding credit for work-based learning, improperly appointing a Committee on Special Education chairman and allowing makeup course work for students who failed a course but passed the Regents.

Although no improper conduct was found, Gallagher said the state indicated the Oppenheim-Ephratah Central School District made two mistakes.

The first was on students being awarded credit for work-based learning. Gallagher said 69 students were awarded half a credit or one full credit for courses called practicum. Although this is allowed, Gallagher said a panel was supposed to be formed to approve independent study, but no records were found of this taking place, Gallagher said.

Second, a Committee on Special Education chairman was appointed by the O-E board, but the chairman was improperly certified.

Gallagher said the state recommended ways to prevent these problems from occurring again.

The Leader-Herald’s requests to the state Education Department for a copy of the report or the investigation’s findings were denied.

According to department spokeswoman Jeanne Beattie, the department will not discuss or release information pertaining to the investigation.

“If/when an investigation results in a final agency action against an educator’s certificate(s) or a school district action regarding a tenured educator’s employment, then certain information will be available,” Beattie said in an email.

Beattie said in an email the investigation is still pending and the department will neither discuss nor release information about it. She also would not confirm any of the information released by Gallagher.

“Even when the investigation concludes, there will be no report issued from the department. That is not the department’s practice,” Beattie said in an email.