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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 2, 2008

Nelligan looks back on teaching as “a good thing,” still seeks change

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Matthew Nelligan has left his job as a Guilderland schoolteacher but he’s not leaving town.

“I live in Guilderland,” he told The Enterprise this week. “I’m not moving and I’m not going to stop commenting on community issues.”

He said he’d like to thank his supporters for their encouragement and empathy and added, “I’m clearly not going away.”

This summer, he and another high-school social studies teacher rallied hundreds of students to fight their transfer to the middle school. Nelligan declared the transfer “a witch hunt and a punishment” and said he was targeted because of his conservative views.

Superintendent John McGuire, backed by a majority of the school board, said it was not a punishment. Reports from an outside consultant showed a hostile work environment in the department, McGuire said, and it needed a “fresh lease on life.”

The teachers became a cause celebre as television cameras filmed protests at board meetings and Nelligan and his students went on radio talk shows.

Passion and drama punctuated the packed school board meetings this summer. On July 1, as board members filed out of the hall to meet in executive session, the crowd of over 300 chanted, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” Moments later, Nelligan jumped up on the board’s table and made the sign of the Catholic cross, touching his forehead, chest, and shoulders. At a July 7 board meeting, he recited the Declaration of Independence before a scrum of TV cameras in another packed hall.

Nelligan submitted a letter of resignation his second day of teaching at Farnsworth Middle School. His last day of work at the $58,967-a-year job, was Sept. 8.

He started work Sept. 23 for the New York State Senate as a member services coordinator, according to senate spokesman Mark Hansen; Nelligan earns $60,000 annually in his new job. “He’ll be assisting senators’ offices with special projects,” said Hansen. While Nelligan issued a statement to the press, saying he was pursuing “new career opportunities,” he hasn’t been interviewed since his departure.

Nelligan declined commenting this week on his new job nor did he want to comment on what made him decide to give up teaching. “If someone said to me...12 months ago, ‘This is what is going to happen,’ I’d have said, ‘No, that’s never going to happen,’” said Nelligan. “I’m a political person. I love teaching politics. I love working with kids. I continue to look back on that as a good thing and as a positive experience for me and I’m very happy to have the opportunity that I have now….”

He was willing to reflect on his accomplishments during a decade of teaching at Guilderland.

“My proudest accomplishment as a teacher can be viewed through the lens of the activism of all the students that I’ve dealt with,” said Nelligan. “The one positive for me out of this entire process in terms of the last six months is you can see kids learned the lessons I was trying to teach in terms of how important political activism is and how important it is to be involved in the community and how important it is to hold people accountable or to attempt to.

“And also how difficult it is as a process to change things when people that are in control or power have decided that this is the way they’re going to be.”

The Conscience of a Conservative

Eight years ago, when Nelligan’s public policy course became an issue because the students took political field trips — one for each major party — he told The Enterprise, “The most important thing to teach kids is how to find their own opinions and act on them.”

He described his childhood then, growing up in Watervliet, a heavily Democratic, political city. His father was a union official with the pipe fitters and steamfitters.

“Politics was a regular topic at our dinner table,” Nelligan said.

In 10th grade, he said, he read Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative. This was in 1988, twenty-four years after Goldwater ran for president on the Republican ticket.

“It really got my attention,” said Nelligan. “There’s competition in politics and strategy. It reminds me of sports.”

He enrolled as a Republican when he was in high school and also played basketball on a team that won the state championship in 1991. Some of the same impulses that kept him on the court come into play in politics, he said.

At Siena College, he studied history and political science and campaigned for Ross Perot. He then earned a master’s degree at The College of Saint Rose where he studied United States government and politics.

Nelligan, who is proud of his Irish heritage and serves as president of the New York State Ancient Order of Hibernians, led a team soon after he came to the Guilderland School District in 1998 that developed teaching guidelines on the “Great Hunger,” the 19th-Century famine commonly called the “Potato Famine.”

“We want ‘potato’ out of this because it makes people write it off as a natural cause,” Nelligan told The Enterprise in April. While it’s true the potatoes were diseased, he said, “There was enough food shipped out of Ireland to feed everyone in the country.”

He went on to pose this question: “If a government can save people and doesn’t, isn’t that almost the same as a policy to kill them?”

Beyond the Holocaust and slavery, Nelligan said, history classes don’t often teach how genocide has affected other ethnic groups. He said prejudice against the Irish continues today, including in ads for Lucky Charms “that make fun of Irish people.”

“Keeping options open”

Asked this week if he had experienced backlash from the people who were supporting him, Nelligan said, “You know, I haven’t and I think people understand, when you go through this kind of a thing, in the end, you have to make decisions that are positive for you and your family, for your mental health, for the future.”

Responding to a blog comment referring to his “overblown ego” and ill use of “his ardent young supporters,” Nelligan said that such comments are “typical of people that didn’t like me to begin with.”

Elijah Sharma, a Guilderland High School senior who helped rally support for the teachers, told The Enterprise the day after Nelligan announced his resignation, “It’s disappointing since he’s a great teacher, but it’s not surprising after what he’s been through. He should do what’s best for him.”

“I do not feel I’ve done anything to in any way embarrass, dissuade, or in any way insult my supporters at all,” Nelligan said this week. “They understand this was like a crucible for me and for others. At some point, the people are going to have to make a decision because it was quite obvious that nothing was going to change from the board’s perspective ...I’m just happy that I had some options...”

Supporters had raised funds since Nelligan said he planned to sue the school district. Asked if he still planned legal action, Nelligan said, “I’m not commenting on that...I haven’t forfeited anything. I haven’t forfeited any of the rights that I have and I’m still keeping options open.”

In mid-September, Nelligan spoke in New Hartford at the New York State Right to Life convention about teaching in the Guilderland district where, he said, liberal teachers can speak their minds but conservative teachers cannot. He said there was hostility towards religious and conservative people.

“I’m an ardent right-to-lifer, always have been,” Nelligan told The Enterprise this week, “so speaking at the convention was no shock for me but ...it may interest your readers to know that the experience I had in Guilderland...there’s a lot of people out there that may operate in more conservative communities that are not surprised by it at all. In fact, they expect it... People that are of a conservative background take a look at education and say, ‘Look, education is progressive; it’s liberal. If you are a conservative, they’re going to slap you around.’ And I feel like that’s exactly what happened to me....None of it’s being done for the good of students and that’s what you saw here in Guilderland. And I think it’s a sad commentary....

“We need to form a movement for the good of the community,” said Nelligan, “and I don’t think that we have a school district that represents the community and I think that we need to have a school district that does that.”

Referring to an Enterprise editorial, he asked, “How do we come up with a more unified, better school district? That should be everybody’s goal. I don’t like to make it only about me because then... they’ll say, ‘Matt’s a blowhard, Matt’s a partisan, Matt’s this, Matt’s that.’ You know, I can take it but it’s not very helpful when it comes to what we’re trying to accomplish.”

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