New interim superintendent for BKW

Joseph Natale

BERNE — A soft-spoken administrator is coming back to Berne-Knox-Westerlo to make sure its bold changes produce the desired effect: improved academic performance.

Joseph Natale, once an interim business administrator for BKW, was appointed, with four votes in favor — cast by Joan Adriance, Vasilios Lefkaditis, Earl Barcomb, and Chasity McGivern — as its second consecutive interim superintendent. Gerald Larghe was absent from the June 16 school board meeting.

He was hired for 13 months at $800 per day, for an annual salary of at least $160,000 and no insurance benefits.

Interim administrators are sometimes used as placeholders while a board seeks to fill a vacancy and often seen as above the political fray in a given district. That, coupled with the decades of experience the generally older candidates have, makes them attractive in districts that badly want reform.

Natale is finishing off his time as an interim superintendent at the Mayfield School District in Fulton County, which recently posed the question of merging with the Northfield School District to deal with budget concerns and declining enrollment. Mayfield voters approved the idea, but Northfield voters rejected it.

The merger idea consumed a large amount of Natale’s time and energy at his last post.

“I have no thoughts or interest in pursuing that concept at BKW,” Natale said in an interview this week, pointing out that it requires an involved viability study. It was a possible future move mentioned by current Interim Superintendent Lonnie Palmer as the district’s budget was developed this spring.

BKW voters approved a $21.9 million budget in May that pays for several new teachers, academic support services, teachers’ aids, additional faculty training, a job coach, and increased librarian hours. It keeps the overall tax levy flat, offsetting increased spending with reductions in bus runs; shared services for business, maintenance, and food services operations; and increased state aid.

The changes were designed by Palmer to invest in academic instruction as the district has been adapting to the statewide Common Core standards in its classrooms and has test results that lag behind averages statewide.

Natale and the school board are expected to have oversight of that design and a search for a new superintendent as their main objectives in the next 12 months. In the immediate future, they will be working out a plan for where additional students would be placed, if the district were awarded a grant from the state for full-day pre-kindergarten classes.

“The success will be how well we can implement all the additional resources we’ll be providing for students and teachers,” Natale said of the coming year. “Certainly, the end result will be test scores a year down the road and ratings for teachers, and the delivery of instruction.”

Natale has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in mathematics from the University at Albany. He later earned a doctorate in educational administration from the university.

He began as a teacher of mathematics in Amsterdam in Montgomery County, the city where he grew up.

For almost 30 years, Natale worked in downstate districts, in Orange and Westchester counties, where he held administrative positions.

“We always think we can make a difference,” Natale said of why he wanted to go into administration. “We look to see how we can make education better for kids.”

At the June 16 school board meeting, where Natale, sitting in the front row, was introduced, Palmer and Lefkaditis exchanged sharp words when differentiated instruction — with different levels of students being taught at the same time — came up in discussion about the board’s goals, and Lefkaditis said the board should have been updated throughout the year. The two have frequently been at loggerheads during Palmer’s one-year tenure; Lefkaditis was elected in May to a second three-year term, coming in second in a three-way race for two seats.

Palmer said he has reported regularly and board members are required to ask for information if more is desired.

“What’s today’s date, June 17? OK, 13 more days,” said Lefkaditis, referring to Palmer’s departure at the end of the month.

“Vas stop, stop,” said President Joan Adriance. “Stop.”

“That’s not right,” Earl Barcomb said amid a commotion of comments.

“OK, I’ll take that back,” Lefkaditis said after pushback from the three other board members. “When we give a goal for differentiated instruction, I find it offensive, again, that we don’t get a single update all year.”

“He’s been reporting on this all year long,” said Adriance, echoed by McGivern and Barcomb.

 “I find your approach offensive,” said Palmer. “I find your approach offensive, Mr. Lefkaditis.”

“You’re not the first one,” said Lefkaditis.

“It’s not helpful; it doesn’t accomplish anything,” said Palmer. “That’s what we need to do. Something that’s helpful.”

“I don’t think that was necessary to take place at a public board meeting,” Natale said this week of the exchange. “If there are particular concerns with a superintendent, they should be addressed individually.”

He said superintendents don’t take directions from individual board members, but the school board as an entity. “The board president is the leader of the board,” Natale said, “so certainly if board members have issues, they should address them with the board president.”

On his relationship with the board, Natale said he has been appointed leader of the district, responsible for everyone in it and for coming up with solutions, recommendations, and plans for the goals made by the school board.

“It’s kind of a close-knit community, as I perceive it, kind of built around the school district,” he said, describing BKW. “It’s a school community, if you will.”

Asked what that means for his work, Natale said, “I think it means keeping a good connection with the community, the staff, and the students.”

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