Two high school administrators resign
Principal Mario Fernandez and assistant principal Michael Teator will not be returning to New Paltz High School next year. Both submitted letters of resignation on May 24, and those resignations were accepted at the June 2 school board meeting without comment. Fernandez officially took the reins from Barbara Clinton on July 10.
Superintendent Angela Urbina-Medina declined to comment, as it’s generally advised by attorneys that commenting on personnel matters can lead to lawsuits. Fernandez did respond to an email inquiry about the decision, saying that two factors were considered: Fernandez’s spouse has business ventures in the capital region that require support, and the 90-minute commute from Schenectady is impeding Fernandez’s ability to work on social justice issues in that city. A message left in a general voice mailbox for Teator was not returned.
Graduation plans announced
Due to updated guidance from NYS, the New Paltz School District has revised its plan for the Class of 2021 graduation. Graduation will be held Friday, June 25 at 6 p.m. for all graduating seniors on the Floyd Patterson Field at New Paltz High School. Considering the current guidelines and restrictions, attendance will be strictly limited to the graduates and two guests. Tickets are needed for entry. The ceremony will be recorded and live streamed so it can be viewed remotely.
In the event of inclement weather, the district will make the decision to postpone the ceremony by 12 p.m. The rain dates are as follows: Rain date #1 — Saturday, June 26 at 6 p.m.; rain date #2 — Sunday, June 27 at 11 a.m.
Overhaul of the code of conduct approved
Students in the New Paltz Central School District will no longer be living under a code of conduct that pushes punishment as the tool for keeping everyone in line. Under the rules approved by school board trustees at their June 2 meeting, the emphasis will be on modeling appropriate behavior. To that end, much of the dense legal language that laid out a menu of a la carte punishments has been scrubbed entirely.
Ricki Butler, director of student support services, told board members that this is the culmination of an effort stretching back some three years, but in fact attempts to overhaul the code can be found at least as far back as a decade ago. This most recent push was initially spearheaded by Butler’s predecessor Connie Hayes with the assistance of Sophia Skiles, who was then a trustee; the subcommittee overseeing the process was ready to present this draft a year ago, but those efforts were interrupted by a pandemic.
While the potential for punitive action still exists, the new code places this in the context of positive reinforcement rather than treating children as problems to be eliminated using tools such as out-of-school suspension or transfer to a program outside of the district. Butler said that this represents a “change of mindset” that must be adopted by administrators, not the students themselves, toward a culture of restorative practices over punitive ones. In restorative justice, the goal is to repair the harm; punishing the offender does not necessarily accomplish this, particularly if punishment is the only tool used.
Board members approved the changes unanimously.
Comment process under scrutiny
When New Paltz School Board meetings were held remotely, it resulted in a big change in public comment. There is a board policy that disallows any member of the public to name individuals during their comments and otherwise curtails the nature of what can be said; with meetings in a public place, the board president would simply shut down anyone who went over time or otherwise broke those rules. For virtual meetings, comments were accepted in writing, and the volume went up sharply. President Glenn LaPolt was forced to review those comments and determine if they could be read aloud or not. On one occasion, when about 20 people sent in very similar comments about a particular topic, the president instead opted to “characterize” the nature of the comments in the interest of time. That led to a strong negative reaction from those whose comments were not read in full. LaPolt also did not wish to provide the full text of those comments to a reporter, asserting that comments may contain confidential information, but a staff member at the state’s committee on open government affirmed that other than redacting details such as email or home addresses, public comments should be disclosed upon request.
Now that board meetings are being held in person, trustee Bianca Tanis is suggesting that the practice of how written comments are handled be reviewed. Many people might be more comfortable with sending in their thoughts in writing, but the policy doesn’t give them privacy. Instead, the board president decides if the comments should be read aloud by the district clerk, or printed out and made available at the meeting for anyone interested in reading them. In either case, written comments are always distributed to all trustees.
LaPolt would rather not have that discretion, because it can lead to an impression of bias. If instead there is to be a standard protocol, it must not be based on the content of the individual comments — there should not be an option to pick and choose which to read aloud. Michael O’Donnell, who has also served as president, doesn’t want that neutrality to be driven by a time limit, though. People in attendance should have the right to speak, O’Donnell believes, but the president should be comfortable cutting off a commenter if it’s taking too long. How much time to allow for comments could also depend on how much business is on the agenda, too, O’Donnell feels.
No decision was made on this issue, but there was a sense that if written comments are read aloud, then it would only be after anyone present has had their say. As for distributing those comments, trustees appeared comfortable with printing a few copies to be made available at meetings, and did not raise the issue of whether they should be posted online, or if someone who wasn’t present would have to submit a freedom of information request to read them.