Emotions ran high at the recent Board of Education meeting in New Paltz on Wednesday, June 5. Attendees packed the room, not only filling every chair but sitting on every spare inch of carpeting and spilling out into the hallway. Many were members of the New Paltz United Teachers (NPUT) union, who came to support each other on a matter they said affected all of them.
The public comment portion of the meeting lasted nearly three hours, with 37 people taking the microphone to air their grievances with the district (the usual number is approximately five or six, tops). Several speakers had to pause midway through their remarks because they got too choked up to continue. Tears were shed. And every speaker finished their statement to vigorous applause, that in one case turned into a standing ovation, the clapping so sustained it became synchronized and rhythmic, as if at a rally.
The prevailing spirit, as the hours went on, felt more like being at a revival meeting than a Board of Education meeting. Those attending were so engaged, it seemed, they could not but help joining in to support each other, with call-and-response throughout not usually heard in that setting. Speakers’ remarks were punctuated by a continual flow of sympathetic cries from those gathered of “you tell ‘em,” and “mm-hmm,” and “oh yeah,” and “that’s right!”
Adding to the emotional tenor in the room was the board’s insistence upon speakers not mentioning any person’s name or position in their comments. According to board president Michael O’Donnell, that’s a board policy. “We’re under threat from an external organization to adhere to that or we will be compelled to do so,” he said. “Please adhere to that policy.” One trustee was heard to mutter to herself under her breath, “We could be sued.”
It was a first, for this reporter, in years of covering school board meetings, to hear such a policy invoked. And those speaking seemed to be caught off guard by the directive, as well; unprepared to edit their prepared comments that were, in fact, based on naming names and talking about positions. When public comments began and O’Donnell repeatedly stopped a speaker from using a name or position, those listening cried out in frustration, one calling out, “Oh my God, how is she supposed to talk? What is she supposed to say?”
The teachers were angry and frustrated with the district over several employment situations. They were not happy about the elimination of the four sys-ops positions in the coming school year; the systems operation specialists who work as technology assistants to the teachers at each of the schools, helping students navigate complicated software. But their particular focus was what they characterized as unwarranted, unwanted transfers of longtime teachers to assignments elsewhere in the district, far removed from their field of expertise. Claims of retaliation (for speaking out against district administration) were made as the believed motivation for the involuntary transfers. In addition, while the teachers expected two teaching positions to be eliminated, as was stated in the budget recently passed, a third teacher in the district was also unexpectedly let go; a loss from their ranks that the teachers were unprepared for and decidedly upset about.
They were also troubled by the manner in which the changes in personnel were delivered: by a note in the teachers’ mailboxes the Friday prior. No conversation or personal contact came from the district superintendent, they said, to tell teachers of years’ duration in the district that they no longer had jobs come September, or were being sent to the middle or high school to teach after many years teaching early childhood education.
The first speaker, NPUT president Arielle Chiger, in response to repeated interruptions from the board president, stopping her from naming names or positions, said, “I’m going to ask that you let the public hear what has happened, and let me finish without interrupting, please.”
“We have no choice,” O’Donnell said, seeming equally frustrated.
Chiger’s continued remarks were pointed. “You have gutted us,” she said of the personnel changes made at Duzine Elementary.
Second grade teacher Lisa Hasbrouck, a 24-year veteran of the district, said she felt “targeted, silenced, shamed and ghosted” by district administration for speaking out on an administrative matter last fall, and attributed her transfer to the high school to retaliation. Her co-teaching partner of seven years, Michele Favale, will remain at the elementary school. “I’m being taken from one of the longest and most experienced and successful partnerships in the district; the team that was constantly asked by administrators to train and demonstrate, and who were given accolades regarding our relationship and the primary program we created. The team that developed a rigorous and fun program that engaged and included all children of all needs… That program is being thrown away along with all our hard work… And after 24 years, I wasn’t even given a face-to-face meeting that I was being taken from my Duzine home and family.”
According to Hasbrouck and Favale’s web page on the district website, co-teaching involves sharing responsibility for the students assigned to a classroom, creating a more effective way for students to learn from two (or more) teachers who have different ways of thinking or teaching and likening such a partnership to a marriage.
Hasbrouck spoke of the accumulated experience she has working in early childhood education that will now be lost to those students and not applicable to teaching high school students. The state no longer even offers certification to teachers to instruct all grades, she noted, because it’s accepted now that different grades need different types of teaching expertise. To put a longstanding elementary teacher into the high school is “like making a heart surgeon do brain surgery,” she said. “They both went to medical school, but would you like that doctor operating on your loved one? It’s time to be honest about whose interests are being looked after… Stop demonstrating that if teachers speak out, they will be punished.”
One teacher after another took the microphone, as did a number of district parents, all asking the board and superintendent to reconsider their practices and to rescind the transfers and the unexpected elimination of a third teacher beyond the expected two. It would take this entire newspaper to report the nearly three hours of anger and frustration expressed.
When the public comment session eventually ended at 10 p.m., the board members and Superintendent Maria Rice seemed visibly shaken. A brief recess was called, which is nearly unheard of in these meetings, which often go on for four (long) hours at a stretch. Board president O’Donnell said that when the meeting reconvened, the board would discuss what had been brought up in public comment; a new practice they were adopting, he said.
After the break, however, there was scant discussion. Trustee Teresa Thompson said she had to “take in” what had been spoken of before she had anything to say. The only other board member to speak, Sophia Skiles, appeared to be deeply moved as she acknowledged what she’d heard and the raw emotions expressed. No matter what decisions are made, she said, “how they are made and how they are communicated needs to change… The way we treat each other has to change. Some of this stress comes with change, but some of this reads to me as deeply unnecessary.”
Speaking directly to her fellow board members, Skiles spoke gently, her voice quavering slightly with emotion. “I don’t ever want to see this again, in this way,” she said, “to have such an asymmetry of love and support for this community feel so disrespected.”