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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, July 3, 2008
Have teachers been wronged?
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND “Shame! Shame! Shame!” chanted a crowd of more than 300 as Guilderland School Board members quietly filed out of their meeting hall Tuesday night to hold a closed session.
While protesters say two of their favorite teachers are being unfairly targeted and punished by being forced to leave their jobs at the high school to teach at the middle school, the superintendent says that’s not true.
The social studies department at the high school is being reconfigured, said Superintendent John McGuire, because of a May 16 report that found a hostile work environment. The department needs a “fresh lease on life,” he told The Enterprise.
The report used the terms “locker-room mentality,” “derisive,” and “not respectful” to describe the environment in the social-studies department, he said.
“We looked at every certified social studies teacher in the district,” McGuire said in mapping out the changes. Political leanings or being outspoken had no bearing, he said. While he declined to name them or to discuss individuals, he said that three middle school teachers will move to the high school, one voluntarily, and two high school teachers will move to the middle school, both involuntarily.
“It’s based on experience and expertise,” he said of the selection. “They are all very capable teachers.”
McGuire stressed that the forced move is “not indicative of wrongdoing.”
The high school teachers Mathew Nelligan and Ann Marie McManus say they will fight the move and have embraced the help of their students.
“It’s a witch hunt and a punishment,” Nelligan told The Enterprise. He cited his conservative views and his letters to the Enterprise editor, critical of leadership in the teachers’ union. Nelligan and other social studies teachers have also been critical of the district’s move last year to combine the supervisor’s post of the department with the English department.
“Everybody knows its punishment,” reiterated Nelligan.
Asked then why McManus, too, would be transferred when she has not been outspoken, Nelligan said, “The district decided in order to cover themselves for slapping me down, they’d transfer her because she has a United States history background,” a subject taught in middle school and the administration could make the argument it was for educational reasons.
Nelligan has a master’s degree in political science and teaches college-level courses at the high school, which wouldn’t translate well to middle school, he said.
“She was on maternity leave,” he said of McManus, and so was not involved this past school year in much of the controversy.
“Ready to fight”
Students and recent graduates have circulated petitions calling on the board to oppose the forced transfer, contacted the media, and networked online.
They turned out in force on Tuesday night. When the school board wouldn’t listen to them in public session because individual teachers were being named, the crowd proceeded without the board.
Soon after the board filed out of the meeting room, Nelligan jumped up on to the board’s table, and made the sign of the Catholic cross, touching his forehead, chest, and shoulders.
“I’m ready to fight,” Nelligan told The Enterprise, earlier in the day.
Rumors were rampant in the school, he said, about forced transfers. Room assignments and schedules were changed, he said, “because of concerns of intolerance in the department.”
On the last day of school, Thursday, June 26, an assistant principal and the police officer stationed in the school escorted Nelligan to the principal’s office, he said. “I’m thinking, ‘What the hell is this? It’s like a perp walk.’”
Principal Michael Paolino then read him a memo from McGuire, said Nelligan, which said, due to “a culture of intolerance,” they have a “responsibility to make changes.”
Paolino could not be reached for comment yesterday.
“I’ve had 35 excellent evaluations over 11 years including the day I was told I was being transferred,” said Nelligan, who has taught at Guilderland for a decade.
“People in every work place make offhand comments,” he said. “How can you come up with a secret report you use to judge 20 people and you won’t let them respond?”
Asked why the May 16 report couldn’t be read by the teachers involved, McGuire said, “I’m not aware of receiving any requests for it until now.”
The Enterprise filed a Freedom of Information Law request for the report on Tuesday.
“The report contains highly confidential information,” said McGuire. Once that is redacted, he said, the report will be provided. “It’s not our desire to keep it secret,” he said. “We’re not doing anything under the cloak of darkness. We’re protecting confidentiality.”
Nelligan and McManus have filed a grievance through the teachers’ union that challenges the transfer, claiming it is not consistent with the teachers’ contract, Nelligan said; there must be an educationally sound reason for a transfer, he said, and it also requires a conference in advance.
“I’ve never had a face-to-face discussion with administrators,” he said.
“I’m keeping every option on the table,” he said. “I have counsel.”
He went on, “The district has placed a black cloud over my head...If I’m a really bad guy, why would they want to inflict me on 13-year-olds?”
Nelligan concluded, “I’m not slinking away from this like a coward. This is horrible. I’ve been a great teacher...I’m not going to walk away with some other job. This is about my personal honor...I don’t want my reputation sullied by the district.”
The superintendent said that district priorities include respect of diversity, valuing differences, and civility. “That’s been a source of pride for a long time,” said McGuire, who became Guilderland’s superintendent this year.
Harassment charges were filed against four high-school faculty members, of which Nelligan was one. McManus was not.
“It came to us as a concern raised by an individual,” said McGuire. “Once anybody raises an allegation, we have a responsibility to inquire. My best judgment was to do it objectively without preconceived notions.”
So an outside consultant, Michele Paludi’s Human Resources Management Solutions, was hired, he said.
A June 9 letter from McGuire to Nelligan describes the basis of the sexual harassment charge. It says that a complaint was submitted to the district that, at a “Right to Know” meeting held in the school auditorium, Nelligan had said to the complainant, “I don’t want to sit next to a fairy.”
Nelligan denied making the statement, the letter says, and no witnesses could corroborate whether the statement was made or not.
The letter says, “…It is the district’s conclusion, based on Dr. Paludi’s investigation, that there is insufficient information to establish the complaint made against you…However, please note that such a conclusion does not mean that the behavior did not occur, but rather that the evidence is equally conclusive both ways.”
Paludi was also hired to conduct a study “into the climate and culture of the department,” said McGuire. (She had also been hired by the district several years ago to investigate allegations about a coach calling her players “sluts.”)
Paludi’s report on the department’s culture, McGuire said, “confirmed for us the work environment was not consistent with our priorities.”
Nelligan said he was interviewed just after Christmas break for the “climate study” and was asked general questions like, “Have you seen or heard anything offensive?” A second round of questioning was planned, he said, and 15 out of 18 department teachers sent McGuire a memorandum, saying they wouldn’t participate. Nelligan called it a “fishing expedition.” Both Nelligan and McManus signed the memo.
The memo says the teachers all agree tolerance is important and is “at the heart of the Guilderland Culture.” They write that they participated in the first round of interviews with Paludi “in an effort to dispel the notion that discrimination of any sort was a part of our departmental culture.”
The memo goes on to say the teachers were told the interviews were not part of an investigation but were part of a “climate study.” “It seems clear,” they write to McGuire, “that your characterization of this investigation as a ‘climate study’ is wholly inconsistent with the environment that you claim you are trying to encourage.”
McGuire’s June 9 letter to Nelligan says, “It is also apparent to the district based not only upon Dr. Paludi’s recent investigation, but also on her previous climate survey of the Social Studies Department, that there exists a pervasive and unhealthy atmosphere in that department exhibited by some members which is insensitive to the rights of others. More specifically, several individuals…have described a climate in which sexual jokes and comments, caustic joking at another’s expense, demeaning comments towards or about others, and a general ‘boys’ club’ or ‘locker room’ mentality exists.”
McGuire’s letter goes on, “This has resulted in a ‘dysfunction’ within this department which is not conducive to the best instructional objectives needed by our students. More importantly, to the extent such behavior is exhibited in the presence of students or permitted to occur as student behavior, it is directly contrary to the positive role model behavior that is expected of all staff in the Guilderland Central School District, and most certainly our professional teaching staff.”
Added training was put in place for staff, McGuire said, and teaching assignments, schedules, and classroom assignments were to be changed to reconfigure the department.
Asked if the school board had a part in the reconfiguration, McGuire said, “Teaching assignments are an administrative responsibility.” He said he kept the board apprised of the report’s findings. Peter Golden, a school board member who was not re-elected in May, wrote a letter to the Enterprise editor this week, saying the school board was not informed.
When asked yesterday if the board had been informed about the teaching assignments, its president, Richard Weisz, said, “Teaching assignments are normally not on the board agenda. We are aware a report was commissioned. We’re reviewing whether or not the report is FOILable,” he said referring to the Freedom of Information Law.
He said the board would continue to discuss the matter in executive session to “see if it raises above normal teacher assignment questions, which are not part of our normal process.”
McGuire also said there have been involuntary transfers at Guilderland in the past, largely because of shifts in student population.
Students speak out
Tuesday’s board meeting started off quietly as the board went through its planned organizational meeting, re-electing its president and vice president while the crowd sat quietly waiting.
At 7:53 p.m., President Weisz, explained the rules for public comment: “If you refer to someone by name, we take that in executive session,” he said. “I’m supposed to gavel you if you talk about a personnel item.”
Julia Fitzgerald, the former head of the social studies department, was the first to step to the microphone. She said she wanted to address the involuntary transfer of two high-school social studies teachers and was cut off by Weisz.
“That’s a personnel item,” he said.
“Let her speak!” shouted Mark Grimm. “Public meeting.” Grimm, who said he was a friend of Nelligan, runs a political consulting business and is a member of the Guilderland Town Board. He had sent out a press release about the protest in which he referenced an April 17 letter from Nelligan, published in The Enterprise, critical of the union leadership.
“This is America!” someone shouted as the crowd applauded.
“Let’s exercise our right to vote you off the board!” someone else shouted to more applause.
The second person slated to speak chose executive session instead.
The third, student Elijah Sharma, began to speak when Weisz’s gavel sounded. ”Speech! Speech!” yelled the crowd and Sharma kept on talking.
At 8:02, the board members filed out of the hall as several of the television cameramen followed and the crowd chanted “Shame! Shame!” Grimm spoke of the “fight for truth and justice” as Nelligan sprang to the top of the dais.
“We’re going to have the meeting we should have had,” said Grimm.
He talked about what good teachers Nelligan and McManus are and how high the Regents tests scores are.
“I am sick to my stomach,” he said of the board’s behavior. “Make them pay in May. These elections are private club votes.”
“You have changed the politics in the Guilderland Central School District,” Nelligan told the crowd. “We will not be silenced by people who think this is North Korea...This is the United States of America.
“Ann Marie and I will not stop until our honor is restored... What you did here tonight is landmark...Demand this secret evidence be released...I’m giving my OK...Release the report.”
The school board’s vice president, John Dornbush, told The Enterprise yesterday that the report involves many people and the district is responsible for protecting confidentiality, he said.
He concluded, “The board needs an education in civics and they ought to take my class.”
Caitlin Walsh was the first to step to the microphone to speak next to the empty board seats as she was filmed by commercial news stations and by the students who film the meetings regularly for cable television.
“These teachers were the heart and soul of our high-school experience,” said Walsh.
As she spoke, the board members, at 8:14 p.m., filed back into the room and took their seats.
Weisz again spoke of following the rules and said the board would listen to comments in executive session.
Jenna Powers took the microphone and told the board members, “My brother is in Iraq...fighting for freedom...and we’re going to speak.”
At 8:17, the board members filed out again. Sharma spoke next, addressing “the empty chairs.”
Grimm urged the speakers, after they had finished addressing the crowd, “to go down the hall and speak in executive session.”
Thirty-two people, mostly students or recent graduates, spoke to praise the teachers or condemn the district for forcing them to teach at the middle school.
Midway through the speakers, McManus took the microphone to tearfully thank her supporters.
“I am overwhelmed and touched by every single person in this room,” she said. “I came to Guilderland a lost soul...When I needed you the most, you came through for me.”
McManus, who was on maternity leave this year, went on, “I feel I have given my life and soul to this place. I feel like I’m a good teacher “
“You are!” came the response from the crowd, along with applause.
”I don’t want to leave you,” she said, repeating the sentiment. “I’m not ready to go. I’m not ready to say goodbye...I don’t want to leave the people who have touched my life.”
She thanked the parents as well as the students. “You’re inspiring your children. You have let them come here...and you are standing by them.”
She concluded to a standing ovation, “I am not going to stop fighting for you...I love every single one of you.”
The speakers were passionate and personal in their testimonials about their teachers. Both tears and cheers punctuated their comments.
“I’m going off to Iraq within the next four months,” said Aaron Betancourt to a crowd that cheered him on. “I’m scared out of my mind but it’s because of them,” he said of his teachers, “I’ve chosen to step up to a higher level to defend what I think is right.”
He also said of Nelligan and McManus, “If there were two teachers that could be considered father and mother of all of us, it’d be them.”
Nelligan hugged Betancourt in the midst of his speech. Throughout the evening, the students and their teachers shared hugs and tears.
Helai Hesham had a particularly moving speech, describing the trials she faced as an American and a Muslim after the terrorists’ attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. She recalled a high-school health class where a 14-year-old classmate said, “Bomb Afghanistan back into the stone age,” and disregarded her query about the innocent people who would be hurt.
“For the first time in Guilderland, I felt like an outsider,” she said. It was over a year before she would voice her opinion in class again. But she learned from her social-studies classes, said Hesham, that it was possible to be a proud American while still challenging the government. Now a teacher herself, Hesham said she had gained the confidence to speak her mind.
McKenzie Bourque, who will be a senior at Guilderland next year, said that McManus’s class was “a safe haven” for her.
“She taught me to stand up for myself,” said Bourque. “If they’re not in the high school next year,” she said of McManus and Nelligan, “I don’t want to be either.”
She said that a petition opposing the forced transfer had been signed by 500 people in five days.
By 9 p.m., after the television cameras had gone, the crowd began to filter out.
Grimm urged people to do three things: Demand the school board make a motion to reverse the transfer, conduct an investigation into “how this retaliation was conceived,” and ask how the district plans “to prevent further retaliatory action.”
If this can happen to Nelligan and McManus, he said, it can happen to any teacher.
“If you put enough heat on the board,” said Grimm, “they will melt like butter, I guarantee.” (See related story for the views of the board leaders.)
Grimm concluded the session at 9:30 p.m., saying, “There’s going to be a legal battle and it’s going to cost money.” He asked people to sign up.
Nelligan told The Enterprise yesterday, in between interviews on television and radio, “Last night felt like attending your own funeral with people eulogizing you. It was great to behold…You need that.”