As VCSD students lauded, residents and teachers chide school board

Enterprise file photo — Sean Mulkerrin
Alan Fiero, left, in April shows Voorheesville Elementary students how to use WeDo 2.0 Lego Education set, which he obtained through a grant, to teach students engineering skills. He spoke to the school board this week about the lack of a plan for the elementary school’s science program.

VOORHEESVILLE — While students at Voorheesville continue to excel, the school board came under fire at Monday’s meeting by teachers concerned about cuts in science and by citizens worried about a coach’s lawsuit.

Whether it’s at the elementary and middle schools or at Clayton A. Bouton High School, it doesn’t matter if it’s the soon-to-be-out-of-date Common Core Standards or its soon-to-be Next Generation Learning Standards replacement, Voorheesville’s students remain at the head of the class. 

The latest accolade was received earlier this summer, when Voorheesville’s high school was named by New York State as a Recognition School for its students’ high academic achievement, growth, and graduation rate

Clayton A. Bouton High School was one of 562 schools — 328 elementary and middle schools and 234 high schools — named a Recognition School. Statewide, there are 4,436 public schools; of these, 827 are senior high schools only; 331 are combined junior and senior high schools; and 89 schools house kindergarten through 12th grade.

At Monday’s school board meeting, Trustee Diana Straut said, whether or not someone believes that the recognition is valuable, “It is better to be on the list than not on the list.” 

Also at Monday’s meeting, lingering unanswered questions were again put to the board. 

‘What’s the plan for next year?’

Alan Fiero, a retired master teacher who, as a teacher’s aid for the past two years, had been Voorheesville Elementary School’s science-lab coordinator and whose position was cut for the upcoming school year due to budget constraints, addressed the board about the lack of a plan for the elementary school’s science program.

He said that he had come before the board before to discuss the seriousness of cutting the lab portion of the elementary school’s science program. “I guess my words were not strong enough,” Fiero said. 

The state is in the midst of a roll-out of brand-new science standards, Fiero said; those new rigorous standards can’t be achieved without the science-lab component.

Prior to the implementation of the new standards, known as next-generation science standards, Fiero had previously told The Enterprise, curriculum was driven by content. Now, it’s a three-pronged approach to learning: content; practice, or how to be a scientist or engineer; and the deep underlying concepts “that we have to teach to make sure kids understand the things that underlie all of science and engineering like patterns and modeling.” 

As the science-lab coordinator, Fiero was the second prong — practice: the hands-on, learning-by-doing concept — in the triad that makes up the new science standards.

Additionally, as science-lab coordinator, Fiero interacted with all students from all grade levels, which is important because another facet of the new standards is the correlation or sequencing of lessons and labs, so that students are building and expanding their experience and knowledge base as they move from year to year.

In September, Voorheesville Elementary will be starting the fourth year of the five-year implementation of next-generation science standards. So, in two years, Fiero said on Aug. 12, students have “to be NGSS compliant and yet, we’ve now dropped ourselves back to year one.”

“It’s a mandate,” Fiero said about the implementation of next-generation science standards. “It’s not an option. Science is just as important for the future of our children, maybe even more important as we go into a world that is highly scientific and technologically oriented.”

He said he’s willing to help but the district is running out of time. Fiero is married to the president of the Voorheesville teachers’ union.

Dan Chaize, a sixth-grade science teacher, spoke after Fiero and told the board that, as the first teacher who starts students “down the science path” in middle school, having the elementary school science lab, and having it staffed by someone who has the time to set up hands-on activities, “it’s so valuable.” 

The return on investment that the hands-on experience provides students is worth the $27,000 that Fiero was paid, and “so much more,” Chaize said. 

Kathy Fiero, president of the Voorheesville Teachers’ Association, wanted to know from the school board, “What’s the plan for next year?” 

She said that she had been very disappointed by a number of decisions that the school board had made this summer. “I can’t even describe how disappointed I am,” Fiero said. 

At June’s board meeting, Fiero spoke about “the narrative” that had emerged around the prescription-drug problem the district has been facing, specifically, that it came completely out of nowhere in March.

Voorheesville’s self-funded prescription-drug plan, after years with barely any increase, saw a 35-percent spike in its costs — a number that has subsequently increased — which led to deep budget cuts to balance next year’s school budget.

It appeared, Fiero said in June, that there had been signs of a problem as early as four years ago. Then, in the last couple of years, the district had been “outwardly advised” by the people who “we count on for that advice,” to make some changes because premiums weren’t keeping up with spending.

Fiero said that she had been on the district’s health-insurance committee (a multi-union contractual committee) since its inception, in 1999. And the perscription-drug problem never came before that committee, she said.

“So, some significant decisions, in my mind, were made outside of that committee,” Fiero said at the time. 

Fiero has also repeatedly taken the board to task over what she says have been communications issues. In the spring, the teachers’ union had not been told in advance of a community forum that the search for a new superintendent would be confidential, and that the union would not be a part of the search committee. Brian Hunt, the former superintendent, retired just before the close of the school year; an interim superintendent, Mark Doody, is now at the helm since the district’s first choice to replace Hunt reneged.

The school board had tried to lay blame on the Capital Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which had been helping the district with its superintendent search, for the failure in communication. But Fiero made it clear that the blame for failing to notify the teachers did not lie with BOCES. 

“In my mind, we are not BOCES employees, we’re your [district] employees. And so, I think there’s not a question in my mind [where] communication should have come from, and I think that needs to be reflected on,” Fiero said to the school board in March.

At the Aug. 12 meeting, Fiero said that no plans had been developed for how science will be dealt with in the coming school year. “You’ve had plenty of time to come up with a plan; I see nothing — it’s very disappointing.” She said. “So, again, I ask: What is Sept. 3 going to look like?”

Doody told Fiero that there is a plan in place for how science will be dealt with come September, but he declined to elaborate on what that plan will be. 

Baron’s suit

Two district residents came before the school board on Monday night to get some answers about the lawsuit that has been hanging over the district for the better part of a year. 

Tom Ruane had asked the board a year ago for information about the school district’s insurance policy, given that it was being sued by a former employee, Robert Baron, who had been the girls’ varsity basketball coach before, he claims, he was fraudulently induced to tender his resignation as coach. And Bob Burns, an ardent defender of Baron, got up to ask that high principal Laura Schmitz be delayed a year, based on her involvement in the Baron lawsuit

When Kimberly A. O’Connor, an acting Supreme Court justice in Albany County Court, allowed Baron’s case to move forward in January, Ruane said, that kept “the meter” running on the lawsuit, meaning that the school district would have to continue to pay for a lawyer for the case.

As a taxpayer, Ruane said, he wants to know how the lawsuit is being paid for. Ruane, who works in the insurance industry, suggested that a representative from the school district’s insurance company be brought in to speak in generalities about how the insurance is applied to the case. 

Twice last year, Ruane said, he called the district office for information about Voorheesville’s insurance policy. Those calls were not returned, he said. Ruane was again before the board on Monday night because, he said, he was alarmed. Ruane said that it doesn’t matter who wins and who loses; it’s about the cost. Ruane was told to call Doody. 

When Burns got up to voice his displeasure over the granting of tenure to Schmitz, he was immediately cut off by new board president Cynthia Monaghan, who said to him, “I’m sorry, we can’t discuss personnel issues … in public.” 

Doody quickly echoed Monaghan, “We can’t have a conversation about our employees in a public session.”

But Burns persisted, “I’m not asking for her scalp, I’m not asking for any of [the board members’ scalps] at this point in time. The bottom line is that everybody has to be accountable.” Burns was then cut off for a second time by Monahagn, who reiterated that personnel issues can’t be discussed in public session.

While, under state law, elected boards are allowed to discuss employment history and medical and financial issues related to a particular person as well as appointment, promotion, demotion, discipline, or removal, in closed session, a board is not required to do so.

Burns then asked Monahagn who did the board represent, the people of the Voorheesville community or the administration? Doody stepped in to tell Burns that it was a public-comment portion of the meeting; it was not a question-and-answer session.

Burns persisted, “Who does [Monahagn] represent,” he asked Doody, “who does the Voorheesville board represent,” the administration or the residents and taxpayers? Again, he was told it was a comment period, not a question-and-answer period. 

At that point, Anita Murphy, the district superintendent of Capital Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services, stood up in the gallery to tell Burns that, during public comment, the board shouldn’t be answering any questions from anybody. (Murphy had been at Monday’s meeting to update the public about the search for a new superintendent — she hoped to have more information by September’s meeting.)

The board should not respond to any comments; it can, however, direct someone to speak to the administration, Murphy said. “The board should not be answering any questions in public, quite frankly,” she said, adding that the board “cannot and should not be discussing personnel.”

Referring to Ruane’s concerns about litigation, Murphy said [of Schmitz receiving tenure], “This is a potential matter that could be litigated, and, I think, I would advise the board not to have a personnel discussion in public.”

“The board should not be addressing any comments that are made in public,” she said.

Murphy then recommended that, going forward, the board should read a statement before each public-comment period, explaining its purpose, which, Murphy said, is to allow the public to make comments.

Kristin O’Neill of the New York State Committee on Open Government, told The Enterprise on Tuesday that there is no state statute that prohibits the board from discussing personnel matters; however, she said that a board may have a policy against discussing personnel matters, adding, “and it’s not a bad policy.”

Indeed, the district does have a no-discussion-of-personnel-in-public policy; however, neither Monahagn nor Doody made that clear when they said they “can’t” have a “conversation” or “discuss” personnel issues in public. 

O’Neill also pointed out that there is no obligation for the board to answer questions (but that’s a policy decision made by the board — not a legal one), nor does it have to allow the public to speak at meetings.

At the Aug. 12 meeting, after it was made clear Burns could not ask any questions, he chose instead to make a statement about the school board and where its allegiance should lie. 

In the recent school-board election, Burns said that former board President Doreen Saia’s resounding defeat (she received only about a quarter of all ballots cast) was a clear response from the public not only of its lack of faith in Saia’s leadership but the board’s as well. 

“I’ve been [in Voorheesville] for 35 years; this is the worst board we have ever seen in 35 years,” Burns said. If you thought that May’s election was a “referendum on Mrs. Saia and this board, you would be completely correct.”

He said that the board had lost the public’s trust and, moreover, it didn’t deserve it. 

“Change will happen,” Burns said, “for sure.” ​

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