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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 14, 2008

Paolino investigation continues
Students criticize board in public session

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — No gavel sounded at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

After three packed meetings where hundreds came to show their support for two popular high-school teachers fighting their transfer to the middle school, the crowd had dwindled to 40.

Several students spoke in public session to criticize the board’s majority for not reversing the superintendent’s decision to transfer the teachers. They spoke of their disgust and disappointment.

“We are very interested in listening to the public,” said board President Richard Weisz yesterday, as long as the comments aren’t about personnel, which board rules require to be heard in closed session. Since the students’ comments weren’t about the teachers, but rather about the board members and the process, they could be heard in public.

Weisz went on, “There’s still confusion in the community about whether speaking to us in executive session is [us] listening. They think it isn’t; we think it is. They get a chance to speak and we listen.”

After hearing the public comments Tuesday night, the board adjourned to executive session, for about two hours, to hear more comments, including, Weisz said at the meeting, some on Michael Paolino, the high school principal who was put on administrative leave.

The paid leave, which began July 28, is to allow the district to investigate complaints that Paolino made inappropriate remarks. He was appointed to the $110,000 post in September, the same night that Superintendent John McGuire’s appointment was announced.

“Administrative leave is to provide us a window of opportunity for serious inquiry and consideration,” McGuire told The Enterprise on Monday; he had been on vacation and not available to comment earlier.

Michele Paludi of Human Resources Management Solutions was hired by the district after a gay high-school social studies teacher complained of harassment in his department. Her reports, heavily redacted by the district before release, noted a number of inappropriate comments, several of which social studies teachers have since told The Enterprise were made by the complainant himself.

Paludi’s two reports are part of what led to the transfer of social studies teachers Matthew Nelligan and Ann Marie McManus. Nelligan, who plans to fight the transfer in court, has said, “It’s a witch hunt and a punishment.” He cited his conservative views and his letters to the Enterprise editor, critical of leadership in the teachers’ union.

McGuire has said the district hired an outside consultant to be objective, the reports documented a hostile work environment, and the  department needed a “fresh lease on life.” The transfers, he said, were not punitive but based on “experience and expertise.”

The investigation of Paolino, McGuire said on Monday, is being conducted by Girvin and Ferlazzo, the Albany law firm the district uses. McGuire said using the district’s lawyer was the “most expeditious and cost-effective” way to investigate. He said he did not know how long the investigation would take.

He stressed, “There are no health, safety, or security concerns.”

McGuire also said, “None of us would want to be tried based on rumor or innuendo.”

Paolino’s wife, Stacey, answered the phone at their house yesterday and said her husband was “unavailable for comment.”

Paolino does not have tenure but rather is on a standard three-year probationary appointment. He had been an associate principal at neighboring Voorheesville. Three assistant principals are filling in for him at Guilderland High School while he is on leave.

Separate from the complaints of inappropriate comments, The Enterprise asked McGuire how Paolino had performed in his first year as principal. “He has been engaged in the district priorities,” said McGuire.

When the school board was questioning whether it should start a pre-engineering program, Project Lead the Way, Paolino answered board concerns and made a convincing case for the program, which was ultimately adopted.  Paolino also said he wanted to look at ways to adjust the high school’s block schedule to better accommodate electives. He indicated that the rapid turnover in high-school principals had made such changes difficult.

Paolino was appointed following a string of short-term principals at Guilderland.  Asked about the reason for this, McGuire said, “I think continuity is always an issue in schools...It can happen for so many reasons, personal as well as professional. There’s nothing inherently wrong in our system. These things can happen.”

Public comment

Three students, a recent graduate, and a district resident addressed the board in open session on Tuesday. All of their comments were met with applause.

The three students — Elijah Sharma, Corrina Goutos, and McKenzie Bourque — have been active in the group United for McManus and Nelligan. The group, which has a website, www.notbackingdown.com, has circulated petitions calling for a reversal of the transfer and for the resignation of McGuire. It has also distributed lawn signs in support of the two teachers and sent frequent e-mails to the press.

The group sent an e-mail this week with a statement from Nelligan saying he would be away Tuesday on a “long planned family vacation to Maine.”

“I am sorry that I will not be present, as you continue to advocate for me, and hold the School Administration and School Board accountable for their actions,” said Nelligan’s statement. “...The message must be made clear that if the School Board and Administration cannot be trusted to keep good teachers where they are most successful and valuable to the kids, how can they be trusted to manage a budget that is approaching 100 million dollars? It just does not add up!”

Nelligan concludes, “And remember the old Latin phrase Vox Populi, Vox Dei (The voice of the people is the voice of God).”

Douglas Page, who identified himself as a resident, taxpayer, and parent, spoke first on Tuesday. He asked the board if the Advanced Placement course in foreign policy would be offered at the high school next year and if students would still get college credit for the course. Nelligan developed the course and many have speculated that, with his transfer, it won’t be offered.

McGuire and board President Richard Weisz both said the course will be offered for college credit next year.

Page went on to recommend the district publish its procurement policies on its website.

“Sounds like a good idea,” said Weisz. “We’ll have the communications committee look at it.”

Page then requested that all board members publish annual financial disclosure forms on the website.

Weisz replied there is no such form for school board members but the board has discussed publishing a list of what people spent on campaigns.

Goutos spoke next, telling the board that at the three most recent school-board meetings she felt her voice “was in no way represented.” She said she felt “disgust” as board members walked out.

Weisz had told the crowd of over 300 at the July 1 meeting, “If you refer to someone by name, we take that in executive session...I’m supposed to gavel you if you talk about a personnel item.”

Although state law allows a board to meet in closed session to discuss the performance of an employee, the board may choose to hear comments in open session. Several years ago, the Guilderland board listened to comments in praise of a gym teacher in public session and then was required to allow later negative comments about that teacher in public as well.

Weisz told The Enterprise after the July 1 meeting that the board has a rule to discuss personnel matters in private because “no one knows what someone stepping up to a microphone will say.” Weisz said, “It could be true or false, positive or negative...The rules are designed to protect everybody.”

The board met for several hours on July 1 with those who wanted to talk in executive session.

“The voters, residents, and students have been ignored,” Goutos told the board on Tuesday. The board acted against the will of hundreds of outspoken people, she said.

Laura Stella, who graduated in June, told the board, “You’ve acted in ways that blatantly disregard the interests of the public.”

She thanked board members Barbara Fraterrigo and Hy Dubowsky for their support. (Six of the board’s nine members were at Tuesday’s meeting. Fraterrigo, Dubowsky, and Catherine Barber were absent.) Fraterrigo and Dubowsky had advocated review of McGuire’s decision to transfer the two teachers, while the other board members had not.

She also said the board should apologize to Sharma and Julia Fitzgerald, the former head of the social-studies department.  They had been the first two to step to the microphone at the July 1 meeting when the gavel sounded.

Bourque told the board on Tuesday, “I’m disgusted and disappointed.”

She said it was unfortunate that not many students at the high school get involved.

“Instead of defaming us, you should have been proud,” Bourque told the board.

Sharma spoke last, telling the board that it has “ignored and insulted an entire community.”

He continued, “You quickly and coldly gaveled us down without a thought.”

Alluding to Paludi’s report, which mentioned a “locker-room“ mentality in the social-studies department, Sharma said, “The only locker-room mentality I see sits before me.”

He concluded, “I believe no community deserves the level of arrogance and secrecy” that the board displayed.

With that, the board adjourned to executive session as the onlookers dispersed.

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