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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 23, 2008

After resigning as GHS principal
Paolino still hopes to stay an educator

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Michael Paolino wants to get on with his life.

After nearly a decade as a popular teacher and administrator in Voorheesville, he took a job last fall as principal of Guilderland High School — a probationary post that paid $110,000 annually. It was a dream job for Paolino, one he had pursued before and felt blessed to get. He was both confident and enthusiastic then as, at age 35, he talked about a long-term commitment to the district.

Then abruptly, and without any explanation to the public, he was placed on administrative leave in July, and in September he agreed to a settlement that will pay him through Dec. 31 but required that he not set foot on school grounds without written permission from the superintendent.

In resigning on Sept. 16, Paolino agreed to waive any grievance against the school district, and the district agreed to “maintain the confidentiality of the report” on its investigation, according to a copy of the settlement obtained by The Enterprise through a Freedom of Information Law request.

Neither school board members nor administrators would talk about the reason for putting Paolino on leave, and Paolino did not talk to the media; he did not return repeated calls from The Enterprise over the last several months.

Last Thursday, he called The Enterprise and talked about his plans for the future, stressing time and time again his desire to move forward and his primary concern of doing what is best for his family.

A year earlier, on Sept. 25, 2007, the night the school board voted unanimously to name him principal, Paolino had brought his wife, Stacey, and their then-17-month-old twins to the board meeting. “I believe in family and the connection to family,” Paolino said. “My family is accepting the position with me…”

He said this week that his family had stood by him in the recent difficult months. (His mother, father, brother, and wife were all educators.)

The exposure in the media, Paolino said, had been difficult. “It impacts everyone involved,” he said, “but being a tight family and knowing what we know to be accurate information, we’ve held together and we’re moving forward….”

One of the most difficult parts for the Paolinos were false accounts of the reason for his leave, he said. Stories in the Times Union, a Hearst Albany-based daily that has covered recent controversies in the Guilderland School District, attributed the leave to several racist comments and a homophobic remark — assertions repeated by other media.

A September letter to Paolino from Guilderland’s superintendent John McGuire, obtained by The Enterprise through a FOIL request made on Sept. 18, states that the district investigation “did not result in any findings that you engaged in any racial harassment or racially bigoted behavior at the GHS.”

It calls the Times Union story “unfortunate” and goes on to say that a comment reported in the media as “don’t drop the soap” and attributed to Paolino was a mistaken reference he made to the title of a song sung by the teachers and not intended “to be offensive or inappropriate.” McGuire writes, “In fact, I note that you immediately apologized to all concerned who may have been offended by this comment. The investigation did not result in any finding that would negate your explanation of making the comment.”

McGuire told The Enterprise this week that the comment was made in the context of an end-of-the-year breakfast and, he said, “There was no ill intent.”

The Times Union declined comment but said it stood by its journalism.

Sexual harassment

So what was the offense that led to Paolino’s leave and, ultimately, his settlement with the district?

McGuire declined comment, citing the confidentiality clause in the settlement agreement. Neither McGuire nor Paolino would say whether the complaint came from teachers, administrators, other staff, or students.

“It comes down to protecting people,” McGuire said of the need for confidentiality. “It’s very difficult for people to come forward,” he said, and breaching confidentiality would make anyone reluctant to do so. Confidentiality protects “everyone involved,” McGuire said.

The president of the Guilderland Teachers’ Association told The Enterprise earlier that no teachers had filed grievances against Paolino.

Gregg Johnson, an attorney with the district’s Albany law firm, Girven & Ferlazzo, conducted the investigation.

Another September letter from McGuire to Paolino, obtained through the Enterprise FOIL request, says, “I write to advise you that the EEOC investigation into allegations of sexual harassment lodged against you has been completed….During the course of the investigation more than a dozen witnesses were interviewed and the team considered other information. The results of the investigation have been discussed with you.”

McGuire told The Enterprise this week that the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was not involved but that the reference in his letter meant the investigation was conducted in the context of the EEOC guidelines.

The EEOC maintains that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, defining it as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when the conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

When asked if Paolino’s conduct had been verbal or physical, McGuire would not comment, again citing confidentiality. He had told The Enterprise earlier, “There are not health, safety, or security concerns.”

A school board member said earlier that claims of inappropriate comments were being investigated.

When The Enterprise asked Paolino if he could clarify what was meant by “sexual harassment,” he said, “No, just having gone through the experience and the different conversations that took place, in the end, I felt that the best move for myself and my family as well as the school district was just to move forward. That’s really all the facts that we took into consideration when I made my final decision.”

“Sometimes perception is reality”

Commenting on the media misconstruing his comments, Paolino said, “Sometimes perception is reality and you can’t change that…It was a difficult experience. I tried to treat the situation as professionally as I could in light of other things that had been taking place in the district at that time.”

He was referring to the massive protests at school board meetings over the summer with extensive media coverage as students, recent graduates, and community members objected to McGuire’s transferring two high-school, social-studies teachers to the middle school after a report by an outside consultant found a hostile work environment in their department. The teachers rallied their students to the cause as they fought the transfers.

Paolino commented on his own situation, which was unfolding at the same time, “I try not to get caught up with politics or anything like that.” His decision to leave, he said was “based upon the facts that were presented to me that it was the right thing to do.”

Paolino went on, “You can’t control everything that’s written and all we’re trying to do right now…is to move forward.”

He also said, “I can’t really change what other people may think based upon what they might have read in a newspaper article; I can’t change that. The hard part is, you know who you are, you know that you’re a good person with a lot of good qualities and you know that you have a lot to give to a school district.”

Paolino said he understood the need for the administrative leave and, as the protests on the teachers’ transfers got a lot of publicity, he said, “I didn’t want to put any more negative light on the school district or any negative light on myself or my family, and, again, I tried to work as respectfully as I could with the school district to move forward in the process and that’s how I handled it.”

Mark Diefendorf, the principal of Voorheesville’s high school, where Paolino worked first as a teacher and then as an associate principal, said, “He’s a quality guy who got caught in a perfect storm over there.” Diefendorf referred to the upheaval in the social studies department and said of Paolino, “He got mixed in as a non-tenured principal with a new superintendent and a lot of things were going on well beyond his control…He was the person that had to suffer because of what was going on.”

Diefendorf described Paolino as a “personable guy, disciplined, a hard worker who could multi-task and was good at details.”

While Paolino was at Voorheesville, said Diefendorf, there were no complaints lodged against him about sexual harassment or other forms of harassment or bigotry.

“At no time did he ever say anything I would construe or anyone else construed as being inappropriate, or sexually offensive, or racially offensive, or anything like that,” concluded Diefendorf.

Asked if he thought the investigation was fair, Paolino said, “The investigation was what it was,” and based on information provided to him, he decided to move forward.

Asked why he didn’t fight the charges, Paolino said, “In the end … it was just…a very difficult situation for my family; there were some very difficult months trying to go forward with it. And in the end, with the amount of time that had elapsed, I think it was just in the best interest of my family as well the best interest of the school district to move in separate ways and to move forward and that was really the premise behind the decision.”

He went on, “If there’s anything I want the people to know, it’s that I was very excited to become part of the Guilderland Central School District and to be the principal of the high school. Over my time as an administrator, I worked extremely hard and made a lot of sacrifices to be able to be put in the position of a principal of one of the more highly recognizable schools in our area.

“I was fortunate that the board of education and the teaching staff and all members of the high school accepted me into that and, in the short period of time, I was fortunate to meet a lot of great people, a lot of talented faculty and staff members.

“And, again, one of my only regrets was the time we had together. I wish I had more time with them. But that wasn’t in the cards and really that’s it.”

Ahead for Paolino

Paolino is looking forward with hope rather than behind him with bitterness because, he said, “If I continue to reflect on the past, then I’m going to prevent myself from seeing some of the opportunities that are in my future in front of me. And right now, that’s my focus — to gain some employment, again employment that is meaningful to me, that is important to me, but at the same time allows me the opportunity to take care of my family.”

Paolino said he would prefer to stay in education but, if that’s not possible, he’ll consider using his business skills for a career in finance. “Whatever opportunity presents itself, either in the educational sector or the financial sector, we’ll take a look at them and see what’s in the best interest of my family,” he said.

The night he was appointed Guilderland’s principal, he had told The Enterprise that he started his professional life — with a newly-minted MBA in accounting from Union College — at a big firm in Boston. “In the corporate world, I realized there were no intrinsic rewards; it was all outward,” he said then. “That’s not how I wanted to be measured.”

As a student at Shalmont, he had been influenced by his favorite teacher: “Mr. Bruce Bouck taught phys. ed. and was my baseball coach…,” Paolino said. “We were preparing for a big game my junior year of high school when he collapsed at my feet.” Bouck died of a heart attack.

“Our relationship as student and teacher, his passion for what he did, it’s stayed with me all these years,” said Paolino that night.

Reflecting on this last week, Paolino said, “I feel that, even in the short time at Guilderland, we were making some positive change and moving in a direction. I know that I had made a good connection with a majority of the kids there; I think a majority of the students in Guilderland knew that they could come to my door at any time and ask for help or assistance and I’d give them whatever I could.

“I just know that’s my passion and, as I said, I’m trying to put my time at Guilderland behind me and then move forward. And if I had a choice, in terms of the direction to move, it would still be in the field of education.”

Diefendorf said he had talked with Paolino about his future. “Boards of education and superintendents will be conservative about bringing someone in who they think might have some kind of blemish on their record. Mike’s name being in the paper with all these other allegations that were around that were totally unfounded, they’re going to be careful about that,” he said.

He suggested Paolino could work in some less public role than as a principal, for example, in a school district’s business office, for a couple of years.

“He could certainly go outside the broadcast area and find a job,” said Diefendorf, but that would mean relocating his family.

“Education in New York State is in dire need of good administrators, which I know Mike to be,” he concluded.  “He’s really committed to the kids of a school district. “He still has many friends that have graduated from here as well as students still here,” said Diefendorf of Voorheesville.

“I enjoyed my time there,” Paolino concluded of his brief tenure at Guilderland. “And I got to meet a lot of great people and a lot of talented people and I wish the building well. I wish all the staff and the students there well. I thank them for my opportunity. It’s just like I said, over the last couple of months, dealing with the things I had to deal with and my family had to deal with, it was just the right move. It wasn’t an easy decision but it was the right move.”

Ahead for the high school

On Sept. 16, the same day Paolino submitted his resignation, accepting the settlement, the school board announced the appointment of Brian McCann as an acting principal at the high school. McCann, who had been an assistant principal at Guilderland for 17 years, told The Enterprise that night that he was thrilled and grateful to be at the helm and said he’d be interested in a permanent appointment as principal.

A self-described “Guilderland devotee,” McCann follows a string of short-timers. The school’s last long-term principal was John Whipple, who retired in 2003 after 14 years. In the last five years, the school has had five principals or acting principals.

Stability was needed, McCann told The Enterprise on Sept. 16 after “events this summer…things the high school was not used to going through.”

Paolino recalled this week the comments he made a year ago after being appointed principal, when he said he planned to be with the district a long time: “As I said to you, on that board meeting night, I think the building needed stability. They need someone who is going to be there for awhile, and can meet those needs, and I just felt with everything that had taken place maybe it was my time to go in a different direction.” 

Guilderland High School has three assistant principals and one principal. Asked for his views on McCann, Paolino said, “I had a good relationship with all the administrative team… They’re very talented. They have the best interests of all students and teachers in their hearts and I think that they can move the building forward and I think they’ll be fine.”

Asked how McCann is doing, McGuire said that it would be inappropriate for him to give a job evaluation of McCann publicly but he commented, “Our building is running extremely well…I’m delighted Mr. McCann’s leadership is instrumental in making things so good at our high school this year.” Veteran teachers have commented that this fall has been the “best start to a school year in memory,” McGuire said.

He also said he considered the frequent change of leadership at the high school to be a matter of individual circumstances and not indicative of a problem. “People come and go for different reasons,” he said.

Asked if he’d seek a long-term principal for the next permanent appointment, McGuire said, “People are what make our business…We’re going to look for the best possible match for our building…I get less concerned about long-term commitment than quality…I’d rather have a great person for three years than someone who wasn’t as good for 20…We’re not going to settle for less than the best possible person.”

He said he was aware informally of McCann’s desire for a permanent appointment and stated, “I will welcome his application.”

McGuire spoke with equanimity about the controversy that rocked the school district this summer and led some to call for his ouster. New to the post, his appointment as supervisor was announced at the same school board meeting last fall as Paolino’s appointment as principal.

McGuire said this week that he considers his role to be that of a problem-solver. “We’re always making judgment calls,” he said, “and the nature of a judgment call is not everyone is in agreement.”

 McGuire also said, “Controversies are part of large organizations. We’re a people- intensive enterprise and you have to anticipate that there will be differences of opinion…We’re in a very good place right now.”

He concluded, “I think this is the best work in the world that we do as teachers, as educators…The times that are best are when we’re less distracted by turmoil and are focusing on teaching and learning.”

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