At the regular meeting of the New Paltz school board last Wednesday, June 19, the school board asked schools superintendent Maria Rice to suspend the involuntary teacher transfers she had instigated recently, pending school-board approval and mutually agreed-upon mediation between Rice and leadership of the New Paltz United Teachers (NPUT) union. The resolution acknowledged the board’s commitment “to realign the district culture and relationships toward communication, transparency and mutual respect.”
The resolution follows an emotionally-charged outburst of public comment by members of the teachers’ union at the June 9 BOE meeting. More than three dozen speakers voiced their anger and frustration with the district that night. Most were teachers addressing employment issues. Many focused on the involuntary transfers issued for the 2019-2020 school year, taking longtime teachers away from their areas of expertise. Claims of retaliation (for speaking out against district administration) were made as the believed motivation for the transfers. In addition, while the teachers had expected two teaching positions to be eliminated following passage of the budget in May, a third teacher in the district was also unexpectedly let go.
The teachers were also troubled by the manner in which the changes in assignments were delivered. No personal contact came from the district superintendent to tell teachers that they no longer had jobs come September, or were being sent to the middle or high school to teach after many years of specializing in early childhood education. The news was delivered by an impersonal note in the teachers’ mailboxes.
This newspaper reported, after the June 9 meeting, how stunned the board members appeared to be after listening to three hours of emotional statements from the obviously distressed teachers. The audience was told that after a short break, trustees would return and respond. But only two board members actually did so. And while trustee Sophia Skiles responded with sensitivity, those listening who had stayed to get more resolution for their concerns expressed frustration when the board quickly moved on to other business.
In fairness to the board, it should be noted that the BOE usually does not respond to public comment directly afterward at their meetings, no matter what was said. It was unusual that an offer to do so was made. But once suggested and expected, it left an impression of board apathy with the listeners when their concerns were not at least acknowledged.
At the Wednesday, June 19 BOE meeting, the board had barely begun to proceed when trustee Diana Armstead broke from the usual protocol, turning to address the audience to say she wished to acknowledge her lack of response after public comment at the meeting prior and to apologize to those concerned. “At that moment, I was… frozen,” she said, speaking with deliberation and care. “My words were lost. And I owe you an apology for that. I also wanted to say that it has given me some time to think about a lot of things.” She reassured the teachers who had spoken. “My ears have heard and my eyes have seen plenty.”
Armstead thanked the teachers for their efforts. “Our children spend the majority of their time with their teachers. More time than we do as parents, because you have them most of their awake hours. I just want everyone to know that we are doing our very best, with good intentions, and more importantly, I just want to apologize that I did not acknowledge all the outpouring that came two weeks ago. I heard every word, and it got me to my core, to the point where I could not even sleep that night.”
Board president Michael O’Donnell also apologized to the teachers for his lack of response. “I also wish to publicly apologize for my silence. I did hear you. But at that moment I felt similarly to Diana; I was completely frozen, numb… I did not know what to do. And so I apologize.”
“I am still searching for the right words,” trustee Kathy Preston said. “But I hope that the actions of the board will be evident to all as a sign of our commitment to this process.”
Superintendent of Schools Maria Rice said that she, too, had been moved by the public comment session at the June 9 meeting. “It broke my heart, also, to see the outpouring coming from the teachers in regard to this. And it’s important to note that the decisions that were made, were made on the advice of the district’s legal counsel. And with the district legal counsel’s further advice, I am able to put the transfers on hold until we have a chance to move forward and look at those. I do apologize if some of the teachers were not spoken to before their transfer was made.”
Following the comments, board president Michael O’Donnell read a resolution into the record stating that the board’s goal was to create a “cohesive and inclusive culture, dependent upon cooperative relationships at multiple levels.” Because the involuntary faculty transfers for the next school year have been opposed “in a volume and manner that threaten district cohesion and inclusiveness, the board is deeply concerned that the proposed transfers threaten to disrupt that positive environment.”
The official position taken by board members through the resolution, which was passed unanimously, is that they “will not abdicate” their role as stewards of the district’s overall well-being and as servants of the public and “respectfully request” that district leadership “invite staff input in collegial inquiry and decision-making” from this point forward.
The resolution closes with board members formally requesting that the superintendent suspend the transfers for now, a move that she acknowledged earlier in the meeting had already been done.