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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 17, 2008

District and teachers collaborate

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Both sides negotiating the new teachers’ contract said the approach used was collaborative.

The word has resonance in the district because earlier this year, an outspoken high-school government teacher had criticized the union president, Chris Claus, calling him a “collaborationist.”

That teacher, Matthew Nelligan, is now being transferred to the middle school and he has claimed the transfer is punishment for stating his views — something the school board majority and the superintendent have denied.

Hundreds of students have come to recent school-board meetings to speak in defense of Nelligan and another high-school social-studies teacher, Ann Marie McManus, who is also being involuntarily transferred.

Susan Tangorre, assistant superintendent for human resources, who negotiated the teachers’ contract for the district said of Claus, “It was his last gift.”

Claus, 56, had been president of the Guilderland Teachers’ Association for six years and did not seek re-election this year. Maceo Dubose, a middle-school counselor who had served under Claus as vice president, ran unopposed for president and assumed the post on July 1. Claus said he wanted to be able to concentrate on his work as a reading teacher before retiring.

Claus had come under fire this year from Nelligan and other high-school social studies teachers. Nelligan wrote a letter to the Enterprise editor, published on April 17, commenting on the newspaper’s story about union endorsements for school-board candidates and concluded, “Over the past two years, jobs have been eliminated, members have been unfairly treated, and changes in working conditions have been imposed by our employer. Instead of dealing with these issues on behalf of its members, the GTA leadership has largely fiddled while Rome burned. Somewhere, Samuel Gompers is turning over in his grave.”

Social studies teachers had been vocal the year before about the need to keep their own department chair. The school board, instead, decided to save money when she retired by naming the English department chair to oversee both departments, supervising 44 people.

Claus, as a reading teacher, is one of those 44, and he said this spring he had no complaints about it. He pointed out that every department at the middle school and high school once had its own chair. “As people retired, consolidation occurred,” he said. “You’d have to be asleep at the switch not to see that it’s a reasonable thing to be considered at the high school.”

The April 17 letter was signed by Nelligan, McManus, and six other social-studies teachers.

Nelligan contends that he and McManus are being transferred to the middle school in retaliation for their statements, while the administration says this is not so. (See related story.) Superintendent John McGuire says the need for transfer came about after charges of harassment were filed by a teacher in the social studies department and an investigation of the department’s culture showed a locker-room atmosphere.

Referring to Claus as “Boss Claus,” Nelligan told The Enterprise in April, “Chris is a collaborationist...He’s on the administrative council. He won’t stand up to the people he sits down with.”

Claus responded through The Enterprise at the time, “My ability to work with members of the school administration and members of the board of education is something I’m pretty proud of.”

Claus said this week he is happy with the new contract and credited the four-member negotiating team, led by Larry Tuxbury. The other members were Dubose, Patricia DelNero, and Jacalyn Stein.

Asked if a collaborative approach had been used and if it had been successful, Claus said, “The job of a negotiating team is to get a contract...Their job is not to simply dig in their heels.“

Tuxbury called the negotiations “extremely collaborative.” A middle-school language-arts teacher, this was his first time as chief negotiator.

“Each side brings problems to the table that need solutions, then we work together,” he said. “Some of the best changes that we made are collaborative. Understanding is the first step on the road to satisfaction with a contract.

“Every two months I sit at a table at NYSUT,” he said of the New York State United Teachers, the union with which the GTA is affiliated, “and I hear horror stories from districts that have a more adversarial relationship...It makes for a strong contract and a strong educational system,” Tuxbury concluded of collaboration.

Tangorre said last week that she and Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders try to use a collaborative approach with every contract they negotiate for the district.

“I don’t understand why you’d want to be the opposite of collaborative — contentious, angry...In the end, when you’re able to listen to someone else’s perspective, that’s when you can move forward,” said Tangorre.

“It lets you come to a middle ground. We’re looking at what works for management. They’re looking at what works for employees,” she went on. “Collaboration doesn’t mean you always agree with each other. It means you work at a problem with an intent to solve it.”

She likened it to the district’s operating principle of listening with an intent to understand.

“I don’t know how else to operate,” Tangorre concluded.

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