By Mike Donoghue, Standard Correspondent
WINDSOR — Former Windsor High School Principal Tiffany Riley, who said she was improperly fired by the Mount Ascutney School Board in June 2020 for a comment she posted about Black Lives Matter on her personal Facebook page, has settled her federal lawsuit for $650,000.
Riley, who broke her long silence during a weekend interview with the Vermont Standard, said the unjustified firing was devastating and essentially ended a successful 20-year education career. She had noted in her lawsuit that comments made by the Mount Ascutney School Board and other officials had hampered her job search in education.
Riley, who is a 1989 Woodstock Union High School graduate, said after her firing she applied for nearly 50 school jobs and never got one response.
The Mount Ascutney School Board has now agreed to provide Riley with a positive recommendation letter as part of the settlement in the case. It said that while principal, “Ms. Riley worked diligently with staff to change the school’s culture. Under Principal Riley, students were held accountable for their attendance, behavior and academic achievements,” the one-page letter said in part.
Riley also disclosed she is finishing a book about her unjustified firing and related experience. It is called: “Lost in America: Finding hope amidst chaos and division.” It is a story about the human side and damage of her case, she said.
Under the settlement, Riley has been paid $191,250 in lost salary and $233,750 for her civil rights claims, according to documents obtained last Friday by the Standard in response to a Vermont Public Records request filed 3 months ago.
Riley’s law firm, William Meub Associates in Rutland, also received $225,000 in legal fees, the records show. Riley praised Meub and Andrew Snow for incredible legal work in winning the case.
The Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union, the Mount Ascutney School District Board, which operates Windsor High School, then-WSSU School Superintendent David W. Baker and six local school board members were named as defendants in her wrongful termination lawsuit.
School Board Chair Elizabeth Burrows, Vice Chair Amy McMullen, and members Bill Yates, Beth Carter, Kris Garnjost and Nancy Pedrick were sued both in their official capacities and as individuals.
The parties included a one-paragraph joint statement as part of the signed settlement.
“Tiffany Riley and the School District are pleased that they have resolved their legal dispute. The parties regret that miscommunications and misunderstandings distracted from their shared focus on educating students,” it said in part.
Riley, 51, said she went from “substantial income to zero with no warning.”
She and her husband, David, were eventually forced to sell their Windsor County home in Reading and move to Southern Maine. They were both able to secure non-school work in the buildings and trades field through a friend in a world made even more difficult by a pandemic, she said.
She said she has since left her job and is exploring new opportunities.
Riley, who began working at Windsor High School in August 2013, said she has learned nobody ever wins in litigation. She said she wishes there had been an open dialogue at the time to clear the air before she was fired — all over a mischaracterization about the posting.
She said there were missed opportunities within the school district to have a civil discourse and to share ideas.
Riley said she has lost relationships — both professional and personal — because of orders from the school district not to talk to employees. She lost her email and her school Facebook that contained photographs from happier days. Riley said she does come back to Vermont to visit her mother.
“My termination was extremely traumatizing. It was emotionally and financially damaging. I did hope to get back into education in Vermont,” she said.
The timeline showed Riley posted a comment on her personal Facebook page on the night of June 10, 2020. By the next morning, a parent had reposted it. By 8:15 a.m. Riley said she had heard from the superintendent that he and the board had received emails about the post.
One day later she received a letter indicating she was on paid leave and that she would no longer be leading the school — all without a hearing. She was told a severance package would be provided.
“I never had a chance to speak to any board members,” she said. “It all unfolded pretty fast.”
She said she made a decision not to speak to news reporters and hoped as the story unfolded people would start to see what really happened.
“It took two and a half years,” she said.
The timing and amount of the settlement appeared to be just a matter of waiting. Chief Federal Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford issued a stinging pretrial ruling in March 2021 when he wrote “undisputed facts establish” the school district failed to follow the correct procedures when firing Riley.
The 17-page decision seriously damaged the claims made by the defendants that they had followed proper procedures. The school board did eventually hold a due process hearing on July 27, 2020 and notified Riley the next day that she was dismissed, but that was too late, Crawford said.
The damage had been done and the firing was clear from the words and actions in mid-June by the board and superintendent, the judge said.
Riley maintained her First Amendment right of free speech was among the civil rights violated by the school officials when they terminated her employment because some local residents said they were offended by two comments she posted about the controversial Black Lives Matter movement.
Riley’s lawsuit cited the lack of proper due process in her six-count lawsuit. It also maintained defamation, retaliation, viewpoint discrimination and breach of her employment contract. The defendants had denied the claims in their initial written response filed in court.
All payments were made by the Vermont School Boards Insurance Trust (VSBIT) on behalf of the school district. They settle claims about the termination, civil rights violations and other elements mentioned in the lawsuit, the agreement notes.
The 7-page agreement signed by the Mount Ascutney School Board, agreed the payments would be made over two calendar years, which would help reduce Riley’s annual potential tax liability.
The signed agreement called for $191,250 to be paid within 30 days of the October 2022 settlement. The settlement said it reflected the lost wages for her employment contract, which still had about 20 of the 24 months remaining.
Another $101,250 was paid within 30 days to Meub Associates and $50,000 to Riley as part of her civil rights payment, the records show.
On January 2, payments of $183,750 to Riley and $123,750 to Meub Associates were due.
Those checks were late, lawyers said, and the joint request to dismiss the case was never sent to the federal court until Jan. 13, records show. Crawford had not ruled on it as of Tuesday night.
The Vermont Standard had attempted unsuccessfully to secure the terms of the public settlement after the Mount Ascutney School Board approved it at during the public portion of its Oct. 10, 2022 meeting. The settlement motion, which followed a 19-minute closed-door session, never told the taxpayers the terms.
Instead, the board issued a vague statement: “the Vermont School Board Insurance Trust (VSBIT) and Tiffany Riley have decided that it was in the best interest of all parties to resolve the case without further litigation. VSBIT is responsible for fulfilling the payment portion of the settlement and we are glad to have this matter behind us.”
The school board and its lawyer, Sean Toohey of Burlington, balked at releasing the approved settlement agreement at the time. They maintained it would be withheld from the public until after all the checks were paid.
Judge Crawford was later told about the settlement and that the lawyers expected to be wrapped up by Jan. 2. He gave them a Jan. 13 deadline to report back to the court.
The Facebook Post
The case began to unfold as graduation approached in June 2020 at Windsor High. As community dialogue about Black Lives Matter amped up, there was a request to remove an American flag put on the athletic field. There also was a request to include a BLM flag that Baker rejected. That left some people unhappy about graduation.
Reilly’s post about Black Lives Matter on her personal Facebook page on June 10, 2020 said:
“I firmly believe that Black Lives Matter, but I DO NOT agree with the coercive measures taken to get this point across; some of which are falsified in an attempt to prove a point. While I want to get behind BLM, I do not think people should be made to feel they have to choose black race over human race. While I understand the urgency to feel compelled to advocate for black lives, what about our fellow law enforcement? What about all others who advocate for and demand equity for all? Just because I don’t walk around with a BLM sign should not mean I am racist,” she wrote.
While the post was designed to be seen by less than 300 of her friends, somebody copied it and shared it generally, the lawsuit said. The message caused some objections, including from Baker, the superintendent, records show. He ordered Riley to remove it and the thread that helped explain the circumstances and her intent, her lawsuit noted.
Riley removed it and posted another message. It said:
“While self-reflecting, researching, learning and trying to make myself more aware of the struggles of the BLM movement, I recently made a public post that unintentionally offended many people. I understand the struggle of the black lives community and stand with them in the fight against racism. Prejudice, discrimination and racism has no place in the world. I love and support my community and will continue to reflect on, learn from and continue to pursue equity moving forward,” she wrote.
The posting about BLM and the firing split the Windsor County region. It became a national news story, especially with its First Amendment issue. Gov. Phil Scott was among those with raised eyebrows.
“I do question a bit that when you have someone who is expressing their right to free speech, to be penalized for that, is problematic,” he said at a news conference at the time.
Riley initially filed her lawsuit June 26, 2020 in Vermont Superior Court in Woodstock, but the defendants later petitioned to have it transferred on Aug. 3, 2020 to U.S. District Court. Riley requested unspecified damages.
After graduating from Woodstock Union High School, Riley attended the University of Florida and later returned to Vermont to finish her education degree at Castleton State College in 2000.
The Rutland City School District hired Riley to teach first and second grade for five years while she also secured a master’s degree in education leadership in 2004.
The Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union hired her for a special education program and she later became its director for five years. Riley became a statewide consultant for special education and eventually was hired as an assistant principal for Windsor High School. She held the post for two years, was named interim principal for one year and received the permanent appointment in 2016.
Riley was a member of the Equity Practitioners Network Initiative, a program by the Vermont Principals’ Association focused on “increasing Equity Literacy in Vermont schools through public engagement, individual practice, and the development of local equity literate teams.”
Riley also had promoted and been a leader for greater equity for Pre-K to grade 12 at Windsor. It covered race, gender, and other interests associated with equity issues at the school district, her lawsuit said.