Saugerties teachers union prez assails superintendent

Superintendent Seth Turner at a budget meeting earlier this year. (photo by Will Dendis)

As Chicago teachers made headlines with a huge general strike, relations between the Saugerties Teachers Association and the district devolved to their worst in years. At the board’s most recent meeting, attended by scores of teachers, harsh critiques of the board and district officials were delivered by a former teacher, a current student and the union president, who all departed before a rebuttal could be offered; a move Board President George Heidcamp called “disgraceful.”

The relationship between the teacher’s union and the district has been poor since earlier this summer, when a letter from the district to teachers requested that certain teachers pay back health benefits. (The district’s position: according to the contract, teachers cannot receive health benefits if their spouses could have received benefits at their jobs but turned them down and took a cash payment instead. The union doesn’t dispute that’s in the contract, but said it was never before enforced and questioned if it could be.)

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The Sept. 11 meeting featured three speakers. The first, Sondra Buono, is a former English as a Second Language teacher whose position was cut in June. She played a recording from June in which the superintendent said there would be “no reduction in the services to English language learners… We’re simply going about it in a different fashion.”

Buono then added her own comments: “You now have 1.2 teachers, not 2. You’re paying for them at a higher rate than you would have in accordance with the STA collective bargaining agreement. I encourage you to take the time to look at the ESL enrollment, then enrollment in relation to the program requirements and current staffing levels. See if you agree with Mr. Turner that there is now more instructional time than last year.”

Teacher Patrick Reynolds was next up to the podium and—after recognizing those affected by 9/11 and the new teachers whose appointment was celebrated immediately prior to the board meeting—began a lengthy indictment of Turner and the administration as a whole.

“I’m here to do something that shouldn’t be necessary and didn’t have to be done this way,” said Reynolds. “I’m here to defend the worth and value of the educators standing behind me, and be a voice of an overwhelming 98 percent majority of our membership who feel the district will fall apart if the current style of leadership continues under our superintendent.”

His first complaint: that the union had made a good-faith offer during ongoing contract negotiations that were in keeping with what an impartial fact-finder had suggested, and the district dismissed it without providing a clear reason why. (The report recommends a new contract for the period of 2010-15 that featured a 3 percent salary increase in 2012 and a 1 percent increase each year following through January 2015, for a 6 percent net increase, as well as three annual step increment increases beginning January, 2013. It also recommends increases in employee health insurance contributions of 2 percent in 2014 and 3 percent in 2015.)

“After we submitted our numbers, we were hopeful that we could put the past struggles and negotiations behind us and focus on the reason why we’re all here—to teach our students,” said Reynolds. “Instead we received from the district a half-hearted verbal response that wasn’t backed by any monetary justifications. In fact, we were told that no financial cost comparison between the two proposals was even attempted. It was clear at that point that the ‘we have no money’ argument is no longer applicable.”

Reynolds called the leadership of the board and district “disgraceful” and said its actions were lowering morale and “[destroying] the working environment of the very people who are the foundation of our community, the teachers of Saugerties.”

Next, Reynolds went after Turner in particular, expressing disappointment with the former Grant D. Morse Elementary School principal. He said that while teachers had “high hopes” for Turner, they disagree with many of his decisions, including: the changes to the ESL program, hiring of a new principal and elementary school secretary, and public statements about the health insurance issue that, according to Reynolds, amount to accusations of fraud against an untold number of teachers.

“It is time for a change in the methods with which our superintendent conducts business,” said Reynolds. “The current method is not working.”

Finally, a high school student named Leon, (still waiting for confirmation on a last name as of press time), spoke on behalf of Buono, praising her work and highlighting the impact he has seen her have on his ESL friends. He concluded by reading a poem, indicting the administration and board. The final couplet read, “They lie from the start, as you can see, / and with this lie, I am displeased.”

With their business concluded, members of the STA and their associates vacated the room, cutting its occupancy in half.

During the superintendent’s report, Turner delivered a rebuttal to the public on the ESL issue, with the STA gone. “New students were assessed on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday to give us the complete list of students. A meeting is being held tomorrow between Mr. [assistant superintendent] Apostol and the supervisor from BOCES who oversees that program, to determine the schedules for the staff to ensure students are provided with what they need to be successful. Following that, we’ll deploy our staff to be providing these services. So I just feel as though it was very premature at this point to be saying what we’re not doing.”

Several members of the board came to Superintendent Turner’s defense, including Robert Davies, Richard Petramale, Teresa Bach-Tucker, Donald Tucker, Robert Thoman, Vice President Thomas Ham and President George Heidcamp. Only Mark Thompson and Charles Schirmer remained silent. Heidcamp said of Superintendent Turner, “I think he’s the best superintendent that this district has ever had. When I walk down the hall with Mr. Turner, the kids flock to him like he’s Superman.”

Many members of the board also expressed their disapproval of the actions the STA took. “I’m disappointed in the tactics that are being deployed at this point by the STA,” said Ham.

Donald Tucker, also disappointed, cited the disrespect the STA showed by leaving immediately after delivering their address, rather than staying through the entirety of the meeting.

“I think it was a disgrace,” said Heidcamp.

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