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Tenure move by Galway school board raises questions

Wednesday, May 29, 2013
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— Hours after pulling a controversial tenure discussion off of its meeting agenda and leading some members of the public to believe there wouldn’t be a vote, the Galway Board of Education granted early tenure to three administrators last week.

Two principals and an associate principal on May 23 were given tenure effective July 1 after working for the Galway Central School District for a year or less. Administrators typically are considered for tenure after two years and then granted it around their three-year anniversary.

Elementary Principal Michelle McDougall, junior/senior high school Principal Michael Healey and junior/senior high school Associate Principal Brita Donovan, who doubles as the athletic director, all were appointed last summer.

Board Vice President Thomas Rumsey said the early tenure was designed to provide stability to the district after several difficult budget years and administrator turnover last year.

“Last year our superintendent and every administrator except one departed the district for different reasons,” he said Wednesday. “That’s very difficult. It’s very difficult for the culture; it’s difficult for the academic program.”

McDougall, Healey and Donovan had tenure as administrators at other districts and “we really felt that they earned it,” Rumsey said.

“We wanted to provide an incentive and let them know that we appreciate them.”

But other people think the board jumped the gun.

“I said it’s unprecedented that after less than a year they’re going to be granted tenure,” said district parent Harold “Eric” Fajans, who said he was the only person who spoke about the tenure issue during a public comment period at the May 23 meeting.

It is legal, but highly unusual, for administrators to be given tenure after just one year with the district, said Jay Worona, general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association.

According to state Education Law, administrators are supposed to serve a three-year probation period before getting tenure, but Worona said last week that some case law has supported boards granting tenure earlier, and the law has not been fully tested in court, effectively leaving school boards to make their own decisions.

The district consulted with its attorney before voting on the matter, Rumsey said.

The board voted 4-2 to grant the tenure. Rumsey, Cheryl Smith, Janet Glenn and Nancy Lisicki voted in favor; Dennis Schaperjahn and Joan Slagle opposed it. The seventh board member, Melodye Eldeen, was set to take a seat on the board that night, two days after being elected to fill the remainder of an open term, but was unable to make it on short notice.

Schaperjahn said Wednesday that although he voted against it, he believes the three administrators are doing a good job and he would be glad to give them tenure after another year or two.

“I just feel that you should follow the proper procedure for tenure for administrators and teachers,” he said. “There’s a reason why you should wait. They’re doing stuff that you won’t see the results for another two years. It just seems that you should give them the opportunity to see what they can do.”

Last-minute changes to the agenda seemed designed to mislead the public, some residents said.

In the middle of last week, the district listed the tenure item on its consent agenda, a portion of the meeting where several routine matters are decided with a single vote and usually little or no discussion.

On May 23, during the day, the district amended the agenda on its website, saying the tenure issue had been removed from the agenda.

That evening, as the meeting got under way, tenure was added back onto the agenda.

“If it’s a good idea, you wouldn’t have to hide it,” said Jeremiah Teeling, a Galway graduate and parent of an incoming kindergartner. “If you’re putting forth a good idea that the community should support, why aren’t you putting it out there so the community can know about it?”

Rumsey said the board didn’t mean to mislead the public; he meant to take the tenure item off the consent agenda and move it to the “new business” portion of the agenda, where board members can discuss each item before voting. He blamed the omission on a “clerical error.”

Regardless of the reason, some members of the public who opposed the early tenure decided not to go to the meeting after seeing the updated agenda on the Web.

Fajans said the room was “packed” compared to most board meetings, but district resident Stacy Morey said even more people, herself included, would have attended if the district hadn’t taken the item off the agenda.

“I would have absolutely jumped through hoops to get there,” she said.

Schaperjahn said he believes the board’s intentions were good but agreed that if he were a regular member of the public and not a school board member, he also might have skipped that meeting based on the agenda revision.

“If I think it’s not going to be talked about that night, I might not be there,” he said. “You have to have an open communication with the community and when you [don’t] do that, you open yourself up to criticism.”

Changing an agenda is legal because the state’s Open Meetings Law is silent on the issue of agendas in the first place, said Bob Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government. The law does not require a public body to publish an agenda beforehand, only to publish the time, date and place of a meeting.

Still, he questioned the “intent” of the omission and whether school board members wanted to avoid hearing dissenting opinions.

“It seems sneaky,” Freeman said.

Teeling and other parents have been concerned about recent changes in the district, including the consolidation this fall of bus runs that will force students of all ages to ride the same buses and push the start of the elementary school day an hour earlier.

He believes the board rushed the tenure decision because the principals may be less popular next year when parents see the results of those changes.

“Before they can be asked to answer for the changes they’re making, we’re giving them tenure,” Teeling said.

Rumsey highlighted positive changes that the principals have brought about, including a new high school initiative that helps each freshman student map out classes to take based on a chosen career path.

“We have a consistent program that takes them through that, which we didn’t have before,” he said. The district also now offers more Advanced Placement classes through distance learning.

 
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