|[Home Page] [This Week] [Classifieds] [Legals] [Obituaries] [Newsstands] [Subscriptions] [Advertising] [Deadlines] [About Us] [FAQ] [Archives] [Community Links] [Contact Us]
Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, July 17, 2008
Nelligan vows court battle
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND In a pin-drop quiet hall Monday morning, nine school board members made carefully-crafted statements on whether the board should review the administration’s transfer of two high-school teachers to the middle school.
The two board members who advocated review were applauded by the crowd of about 170, mostly students, who supported the teachers Matthew Nelligan and Ann Marie McManus in their fight against the involuntary transfer.
The controversy has put the suburban school district in a media spotlight over the last three weeks as the teachers claim they are being unfairly punished while the administration claims the reassignment is neither punitive nor indicative of any wrongdoing on the part of the teachers. Superintendent John McGuire has said the high-school social-studies department is being reconfigured since a study, fueled by a gay teacher’s complaints of harassment, found a hostile work environment.
“Now we can get back to the business of teaching and learning,” McGuire told The Enterprise moments after the 7-to-2 vote meant the board would not take up the matter, but rather leave it to the administration, as is routine with teaching assignments.
McGuire said he had met with the two teachers being transferred from the middle-school to the high school, whom he declined to name. “They have mixed emotions,” he said about their involuntary transfer. “The way they are approaching it is commendable, professional.”
“The board put itself on the wrong side of honesty,” Nelligan told The Enterprise just after the vote.
“They’re going to hear from me in court,” he said, stating the board majority had “totally disregarded the will of the public,” basing its decision on “rumor-mongering and politics.”
Nelligan said that a defense fund has been set up, 200 lawn signs were printed, and 2,000 people had signed a petition demanding reversal of the transfers.
Elijah Sharma, one of the Guilderland High School students who as been organizing protests in support of the teachers, sent out press releases yesterday, announcing his group, “United for McManus and Nelligan,” is launching a formal campaign calling for McGuire’s resignation.
Also, a release was sent yesterday from another support group, “notbackingdown.com,” announcing a fund has been established for Nelligan’s legal battle to reverse the transfer.
It quotes Nelligan, “This fight is not over. It has just moved onto a new level, a level where facts and evidence count, and where we expect to win.”
On Monday, the two board members who favored review Barbara Fraterrigo and Hy Dubowsky had voted in September against McGuire’s appointment; they liked another candidate better. (The full story is online at www.AltamontEnterprise.com, under “Archives” for Sept. 27, 2007.) The vote then was 6 to 3. The third dissenter, Peter Golden, was not re-elected and has since been active in the protests over the forced faculty transfers.
At two school board meetings on July 1 and 7 the board adjourned to executive session, leaving the public in the meeting hall where supporters of Nelligan and McManus praised the teachers and, in the second session, protesters criticized various aspects of the district administration. McGuire was criticized at the July 7 school board meeting for decisions he made while working at the Bethlehem and Greenwich districts.
“When you do this work, you’ll always make decisions that some disagree with,” McGuire said on Monday. “I’m very proud of my work in both Greenwich and Bethlehem.”
Six of the seven school-board members all but Denise Eisele who said Monday the transfer does not rise to the level of board policy had been backed by the teachers’ union in their elections. The issue became controversial as Golden raised concerns earlier this year about the district’s release to the union of student addresses for the two previous elections. The board has since revised its policy on the release of directory information.
After two evening sessions on July 1 and 7 Monday’s meeting was set for 8 a.m., to accommodate Dubowsky’s schedule for cancer treatment.
Seven vote no
The seven board members who believed the transfer should be left to the administration sounded common themes of protecting employees and fostering sensitivity and respect.
Board President Richard Weisz who has borne the brunt of criticism as he called for comments about the teachers to be heard in private, frustrating the crowds who came to two meetings to speak in public spoke first on Monday.
Weisz said he was sure each year when teachers were forced to transfer that, although some were disappointed, they didn’t come to the board. “Others are open to a new experience” so long as it involves teaching students, he said.
He stressed the importance of the board’s following rules.
“The only difference between rule by mob and rule by law is process and procedure,” said Weisz, a lawyer who was first elected to the board in 2000. He said this is “particularly appropriate when passions are high.”
Weisz also spoke of the school district’s responsibility to safeguard its employees. Last December, a teacher in the social-studies department brought concerns about harassment to the administration, Weisz said. The administration hired an outside expert “someone who had no ax to grind” to interview members of the social-studies department.
“At issue was behavior between and among adults,” he said.
The Jan. 30 report by Michele Paludi found the teacher had been “treated poorly” and the department was a “very tight-knit, almost self-contained community, almost a family group,” said Weisz, which carried a “we-they mentality” to extremes.
After the teacher filed formal charges of sexual harassment, Paludi conducted an investigation and concluded the charges “could neither be confirmed or denied,” said Weisz.
He said he was reminded of the mythic comment made by the young fan who said to Shoeless Joe Jackson in the midst of the 1919 scandal over fixing the World Series, “Say it ain’t so.”
Beloved teachers “did not always practice what they preached” in class tolerance and sensitivity,” said Weisz.
“The report exonerates no one,” he said.
It would have been a violation of district policy to have done nothing, Weisz said. He said of changes including re-assignments, “Not all of these changes were intended or need be permanent.”
He also said, “I’m committed to process.” Because board members stuck to procedures, he said, “We all have taken a lot of personal abuse.”
And, responding to calls from protesters that board members be voted out of office, Weisz told the crowd, “I recognize I am your employee...If I am involuntarily re-assigned at the next election, so be it.”
Weisz then alluded to comments made by Mark Grimm, a friend of Nelligan and a town-board member who runs a political consulting business and has helped organize protesters; Grimm had told the crowd at the July 1 board meeting, “If you put enough heat on the board, they will melt like butter, I guarantee.”
Weisz told the crowd Monday morning if it wanted someone who buckled under pressure, “Don’t elect me.” He intoned, “Be careful what you wish for.”
He also responded to calls to vote down the school budget in retribution, which he said indicated more interest in getting your way than in the kids.
“Please don’t destroy our school,” said Weisz, “because there will be nothing left to say.”
Denise Eisele said, in reading Paludi’s report, she was surprised by the lack of professionalism.
A nurse who was elected to the board in 2006, Eisele went on, “Of course we have excellent teachers...This is about what was going on between adults.”
What she has not liked seeing, said Eisele, is the lack of respect for other teachers in the high school and respect for other opinions. “I feel I’ve been living in a negative cultural experience.”
In the last couple of weeks, she said, she has learned harassment comes in different forms. In her youth, she said, she marched against the Vietnam War but did not “verbally abuse” those she disagreed with.
Gloria Towle-Hilt, who retired last year as a Farnsworth Middle School teacher and was elected to the board, said she re-read her campaign literature to “reset my own inner compass.”
“The education of youth is a sacred trust,” she said, quoting her campaign literature, and the board works together with respect and collaboration.
While she said she understood the frustration caused by the board’s discussing the teachers in closed session, Towle-Hilt said it allowed her to listen in a respectful atmosphere.
She also said she understood how impatient some felt about the slow pace but she was grateful for the time and space to comprehend the reports, the comments, and the letters.
Despite thinking, reflection, and praying, Towle-Hilt said she couldn’t find a “win-win solution,” which she prefers.
The district has received much praise for its anti-bullying campaign, Towle-Hilt said as she talked about the importance of following school policies on respect for diversity and on providing a safe school environment.
The outside consultant helped the district find problems, she said. “We are not walking the talk.”
Towle-Hilt said she would be angry and appalled if any board of education received a report of a hostile work environment and did not take action.
The superintendent, she said, had acted in line with the district’s policies.
Judy Slack retired as a teaching assistant at Lynnwood Elementary this spring and was elected to the school board. Her first meeting was July 1, when the hall was packed with protesters.
She told the crowd Monday that in May she had worked with others to develop district priorities and pointed to a chart on the wall that depicted them, shown as a circle, encompassing learners.
“The problems we are facing seem to come from holes in the circle,” said Slack.
Each must be given respect, trust, and empathy, she said, describing that as “the heart and soul of what our district must be.”
When inequality does exist, it is wrong, said Slack. “The circle must be repaired.”
She described the letters and e-mails she had read and the calls she had received. “Passions on each side are incredibly high,” said Slack.
To repair, much will be on the shoulders of the teachers, she said. Because “they are professional,” said Slack, she thinks they’ll rise to the challenge.
“Although our paths may be different,” said Slack, “our final destination is the same” what’s best for the students.
Catherine Barber, a musician and lawyer, was just elected to her second term.
She said the board was following the law and its own rules and procedures by not listening to comments on personnel matters in public. The board devoted over seven hours in executive session, she said, on this matter.
Since Paludi’s report had found a hostile environment, she said, the administration had an obligation to act.
Teaching assignments, she said, are not subject to review by the school board.
Colleen O’Connell, a lawyer who was first elected in 2004, said on Monday, “I’ve listened very carefully and I’ve contemplated many options. “She described two very different e-mails she had received from two people equally involved in the district; one said the superintendent should be fired and the other said he should be supported.
“I do not believe school board decisions should be made by taking a poll,” said O’Connell.
She thanked Weisz for his “strength and courage” in following the board’s policies and procedures.
Vice President John Dornbush, who had worked at the University of Albany as assistant director of financial aid, was just re-elected for a fourth term. He said he had listened in all the appropriate ways and was aware of the meetings held away from the board.
Decisions shouldn’t be made by determining which way the wind blows, he said.
An executive session allows people to bring up unpopular views, he said. Turning to the crowd, he asked, “Don’t you think that would be kind of hard to do in the atmosphere that was present in the room July 1?” A few in the crowd answered, no.
“How could that have been done in public?” asked Dornbush. “We were privy to information that could not and should not have been made public.”
In his nine years on the board, Dornbush said, he has been frustrated. “I was not permitted to share the quote-unquote other side,” he said.
“I’m elected, I feel, for my judgment,” said Dornbush.
Two vote yes
The two board members who favored review have been frequently outspoken on free-speech issues and calling for accountability from the district’s administrators.
Hy Dubowsky, who works for the state’s Department of Labor as the economic development director, has been on the board since 2006.
“As a board,” he said, “We have only one employee, the superintendent, who reports to us and has an obligation to keep us informed...In the end, the board may or may not support his decision to revamp the social-studies department, but to keep the matter from the board was unconscionable. Some might even call it insubordination.”
Dubowsky said he was committed to listening to all in the community. “We cannot be so conceited, think ourselves so superior to those we represent, to believe that an issue of such importance to the community should not be subject to the scrutiny of those they elected.”
The “sweeping changes” being made to the social-studies department, he said, are not routine administrative transfers. “It has created a climate of fear and distrust,” said Dubowsky. “It has put a wedge in the schools, set teacher against teacher, energized parents and students against others who did not agree with them,” and weakened students’ education.
“We have every legal right to review and reject the superintendent’s actions,” Dubowsky concluded. “We report to a higher authority than the superintendent. We report to the people. I highly support the motion and will vote in the affirmative.”
The crowd applauded Dubowsky’s comments for more than a minute.
Barbara Fraterrigo’s comments were greeted with similar enthusiasm.
On the board since 1997, Fraterrigo works in the physicians’ office of her husband and children.
She told the crowd she was most thankful for the skills, courage, and organizational ability of current and past students.
Fraterrigo said she worries about teacher morale as four teachers are being uprooted from the grade level they love. Teachers, she said, are the engine at the heart of students’ success.
“What teacher is going to feel safe?” she asked. Teachers have a certain “skill set,” which makes them successful in their work, and it can’t randomly be transferred to other grade levels.
Fraterrigo also said that shared decision-making is a hallmark of the Guilderland district and she “felt blind-sided” because she had not known of the social-studies department restructuring until she got calls the last day of school, when the teachers were told of it.
The new superintendent shouldn’t have implemented his “Draconian solution,” she said, without first discussing it with the school board.
The Paludi reports being released to the public, she said, are so redacted as to be “almost useless.”
“Why can’t we issue a non-CIA version?” asked Fraterrigo.
“I feel a huge injustice has been perpetrated on these individuals,” said Fraterrigo.
The gay teacher who complained of harassment, she said, “simply wanted an awareness developed that certain remarks were hurtful.”
A letter to him from the superintendent indicated a formal complaint may better assist the district, she said, as the audience clapped.
The department superintendent wrote the superintendent that, since the initial complaint, the “tone has improved,” and Paludi stated teachers had apologized, Fraterrigo reported.
“Instead of taking out the meat cleaver on the last day of school,” Fraterrigo said, McGuire could have met with the entire social-studies department, telling them that any further inappropriate banter would result in serious consequences.
The district’s student code of conduct suggests “progressive discipline,” said Fraterrigo.
She asked why McGuire hadn’t taken action at the start of the second semester rather than waiting till the end of the school year.
Each of Paludi’s two reports cost $5,000, said Fraterrigo, and she said nothing she read in either indicated the need to transfer.
Addressing McGuire’s concern the board would set a precedent, Fraterrigo said in her 12 years on the board, it had twice overridden the superintendent’s decision.
“The sky did not fall down,” she said as laughter rippled lightly over the crowd.
Fraterrigo said supporters of the superintendent said the teachers use of their students as “pawns for their cause is troubling.”
If the board is to put students first, said Fraterrigo, it must reverse the decision.
The applause was loud and long.