Longtime New Paltz Middle School principal, Dr. Richard Wiesenthal, unexpectedly resigned his position on Friday, June 22 (effective June 30). At a Board of Education meeting held on June 25, a seated board of four trustees appointed Ann Sheldon, then-assistant principal at the middle school, to a four-year probationary term as middle school principal.
In so quickly appointing a replacement for Dr. Wiesenthal, the administration and Board of Education trustees came under fire from local residents during the public comment portion of the regularly scheduled board meeting on July 11, following the board’s reorganization meeting.
It should be noted that the point was made several times by the speakers that Sheldon has an excellent reputation and that the distress over her quick appointment has nothing to do with her personally or her abilities, only with the hiring process as carried out by the superintendent of schools and the Board of Education.
Former school board member, Edgar Rodriguez, speaking on behalf of a community group known as, “Concerned Parents of New Paltz,” asked the newly formed Board of Education to rescind the decision made by the former board to appoint Sheldon. “This appointment and the reasons for [Dr. Wiesenthal]’s sudden resignation have been shrouded in mystery by the superintendent of schools and the board,” he read from a prepared written statement.
Rodriguez said the hastily made appointment was a discriminatory one that did not allow others the opportunity to apply; specifically, people of color. He advised the board that the group’s attorney, Michael Sussman, “is being retained to file a complaint about this matter with the commissioner of the state Education Department. This is the same attorney who recently won a settlement against our district for a tenure denial case based on race discrimination of an African-American female guidance counselor.”
The appointment of Sheldon was made in a “rushed… and illegal executive session that was not posted,” Rodriguez continued. “On or about Friday, June 22 the superintendent posted a board meeting for June 25, but without an agenda… The agenda was only posted a few hours before the start of the meeting after I made a phone call to the district clerk.”
Of the four board members present at the meeting of June 25, Rodriguez added, “two had terms that would expire in five days.”
Rodriguez noted that he was the only member of the public present at this meeting, and that he urged the board that night to appoint Sheldon as interim principal and allow her to compete for the position while “a proper search took place that would include teachers, parents, community members and members of the district’s Racial Equity Initiative Advisory Committee.”
District teacher and parent Bianca Tanis told the board they’d lost their opportunity to make good on their promises to enact racial equity in the district by hiring a new principal without any public notice and no opportunity for community input. While there was no guarantee an applicant of color or one with a history of racial equity would have applied, she said, “at least the BOE and the superintendent would have demonstrated their support for the racial equity initiative and diversifying district leadership in a very concrete way.”
There’s a gap between intentions and actions with regard to attaining racial equity in the district, she added.
Former district administrator and Board of Education member Maggie Veve read from a prepared statement signed by eight other community members, saying she “believed the community deserves more than they’re getting from the School Board.”
Veve cited a number of examples of what she and the others who signed the statement she read believe to be institutional racism in the district, and made 12 recommendations to the board with regard to racial equity, hiring practices and protocols and clarifying “a highly irregular middle school principal appointment.”
Superintendent of Schools Maria Rice responded to the comments by saying the decision was made to quickly appoint a principal at the middle school because of the impact it would have had on students’ safety during the ongoing capital project if stable administration who knew the district was not in place.
While the district did not follow the typical hiring process in this situation, Rice said, “Unfortunately, what happened this year seemed urgent to us, for the stability of both the students and staff. And because of the timing and the situation, and the fact that we had a very competent assistant principal, who has demonstrated her skills and her compassion and dedication, I was able to look at this and see [appointing her] as a way to move forward.”
Because of the capital project, Rice added, “I needed to keep the children safe. We’re moving populations of students from one part of the building to the next. I needed someone who knew the scheduling, who knew the staff, the students and the parents as well as the community. The bottom line is, I needed someone with the knowledge that this particular person has. She’s been in the district for 16 years as both a teacher and an administrator.”
Rice noted that that “sense of urgency” she felt to “fill the position as quickly as possible so that we could keep moving forward did cost us the ability to go through the full-blown process, such as we did with the past principals we hired. But this was an anomaly, a unique situation and that’s why I brought it to the Board of Education, and they looked at it from every angle. I do apologize for the way it went through but it was something I truly feel was important and I have every faith in and congratulate Ann Sheldon as our new principal at the middle school.”