A crowd of students and citizens of Guilderland, N.Y., gathered last week at a public school board meeting to protest the questionable reassignment of two teachers, only to look on in disbelief as the school board stood up and left the room.
“Shame! Shame! Shame!” chanted the crowd, as the board retreated to another room to hold a closed, executive session.
Without their intended audience, supporters of the teachers continued the meeting, addressing their comments to one another, to television cameras and, as one student stated, to “the empty chairs.”
Undaunted, Guilderland Town Board member Mark Grimm declared, “We’re going to have the meeting we should have had.”
Reassigned teacher Matt Nelligan
As WND reported, two former teachers at Guilderland High School, Matt Nelligan and Anne Marie McManus, were informed on the last day of the 2008 school year that they would be involuntarily reassigned to the Farnsworth Middle School for reasons neither teacher fully understood.
School officials have said that the move was designed to address problems with the cultural climate of the social studies department, but Nelligan believes he was transferred because of his outspoken, conservative viewpoints and criticism of the teachers’ union leadership.
“It’s a witch hunt and a punishment,” he told the Altamont Enterprise. “Everybody knows it’s punishment.”
The scene for confrontation was set at last week’s board meeting when dozens of students and citizens, rallied by Facebook, MySpace and Internet pages dedicated to support of the teachers, packed into a room at the school, many sitting on the floor. The Enterprise estimates over 300 people attended the meeting.
After the board finished organizational matters, board President Richard Weisz explained the board’s policy about open discussions of personnel decisions: “If you refer to someone by name,” he said, “we take that in executive session. I’m supposed to gavel you if you talk about a personnel item.”
Robert Freeman, executive director of New York’s Committee on Open Government, explained to the Albany Times Union that while no law directs school boards to take personnel matters into closed sessions, individual boards can craft their own policies.
Still, Freeman voiced his reservations to the Enterprise saying, “They ought to know they don’t have to go into executive session. They had the right to discuss the entirety of the issue in public.” He attributed the Guilderland board’s policy to a common myth about personnel matters.
“It drives me crazy,” he said.
When the microphone was made available to the public, first to speak was a former head of the school’s social studies department. She stated she wanted to speak to the involuntary reassignment of the two social studies teachers.
“That’s a personnel item,” Weisz warned.
According to the Enterprise, the crowd demanded to be heard.
“Let her speak!” shouted Grimm.
“This is America!” someone shouted.
Student Elijah Sharma
“Let’s exercise our right to vote you off the board!” shouted another, to applause.
When another speaker, student Elijah Sharma, stood at the microphone, Weisz tried to cut him off, but the crowd began to yell, “Speech! Speech!”
Sharma continued speaking through Weisz’s objections.
That’s when the board quietly stood up and left the room.
Thirty-two students, teachers and community members then took turns at the microphone, with or without the board present, to praise the teachers and condemn the board’s decision.
The Times Union reported the testimony of a former student, Liz Sherman, who said Nelligan was one of the best instructors she ever had, even though she disagreed with his conservative politics, because he challenged her to examine her liberal-leaning views. “
He makes you think about why that’s your opinion,” she said and added, “he’s not derogatory by any means.”
Aaron Betancourt, who plans to leave for military service in Iraq shortly, said of his former instructors, “If there were two teachers that could be considered father and mother of all of us, it’d be them.”
Reassigned teacher Anne Marie McManus
McManus stood to embrace her former student and, in tears, thanked her supporters.
“I am overwhelmed and touched by every single person in this room,” she said. “When I needed you the most, you came through for me.”
Nelligan, however, was vehement at the meeting and vowed to fight the decision.
“It’s an absolute abuse of power, and it’s shameful,” he said. “Taxpayers should be outraged that (the district) should waste their money going after people they don’t like.”
The decision to reassign the high school instructors to middle school classes was prompted by a “culture climate survey” that the school hired an outside firm to conduct as it investigated a claim of sexual harassment against Nelligan that was later deemed unsubstantiated.
Early last month, Superintendent John McGuire sent a letter to Nelligan that summarized the survey’s findings:
“There exists a pervasive and unhealthy atmosphere in the department exhibited by several members which is insensitive to the rights of others,” the letter reads. “More specifically, several individuals … have described a climate in which sexual jokes and comments, caustic joking at another’s expense, demeaning comments towards or about others, and a general ‘boys’ club’ or ‘locker room’ mentality exists.”
The school has yet to release the content of the report, citing confidentiality.
Teacher Lisa Bedian, who has worked in the social studies department for six years, said the report of a “boy’s club” atmosphere is “baffling” and that she has never observed intolerant behavior from instructors.
Nelligan told the Enterprise, “I’ve had 35 excellent evaluations over 11 years including the day I was told I was being transferred. If I’m really a bad guy, why would they want to inflict me on 13-year-olds?”
The school board intends to meet again tonight to discuss the matter in a closed, executive session. Though community members are already planning to protest, Weisz defended the board’s decision to meet behind closed doors.
“We did want information,” he told the Enterprise. “Our rules are, we can’t take personnel information in public.”
“Unfortunately, people are not willing to give institutions the benefit of the doubt while they let processes work out,” he said. “It’s disappointing when people confuse adhering to rules and process with rejecting viewpoints.”
Weisz was not the only board member to be frustrated by feeling required to stick to the rules. Board Vice President John Dornbush told the Enterprise, “By law, we have to protect confidentiality in personnel matters.”
“I wish I were at liberty to speak,” he said. “We end up looking like the bad guys and don’t have any legal way to tell another side of the story.”