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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, June 5, 2008

BKW teachers want a principal

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — Since December, Berne-Knox-Westerlo High School has been without a full-time principal.  Mary Petrilli has been on medical leave. 

On Monday night, during the school board’s meeting in the high school auditorium, teachers filed in and petitioned the school board for leadership they say is necessary to do their jobs well and to maintain a healthy, productive, educational environment for their students.  Parents of students also turned out on Monday in support of the teachers.

The BKW Teachers’ Association, led by President Kelly Smith, says that, without the stability and consistency of a full-time administrator, the atmosphere in the building has been declining since the Christmas break. 

On Monday, Superintendent Steven Schrade was pressed for his views on the current situation.

“I believe that all the people sitting behind you are basically friends of mine, and they’re trying to express their frustration in the kindest terms possible and I appreciate that,” he said.  “I do not believe that the high school is running the way I would want it to run at this time…I thought that there would be a resolution to this much, much earlier….”

Petrilli went on medical leave last October.  An interim principal served for two months; since then, Schrade has been doing double duty.  On Monday, as both parents and teachers sought answers, members of the school board stressed that the high school principal position is not open. 

When school employees are absent for medical reasons, the information is deemed private; no information can be released except that an employee is on medical leave and that he or she is accumulating sick leave.  At BKW, contracts allow for a maximum of 200 days of sick leave.  A school year is about 185 days. 

Shortly after Petrilli’s leave commenced, BKW hired Ralph Lyons as an interim principal. When Lyons was hired, BKW was between business administrators.  Lyons served as principal from October to Dec. 21 and was paid $400 per day.

Schrade had been BKW’s high school principal in the 1990s and is now serving as interim principal.  In 2000, he was hired as the school’s superintendent.  When BKW has been between business administrators, Schrade has taken on additional responsibilities in that office.  Now, in acting as both the principal and superintendent, he moves back and forth throughout the school day from the school to the district office across the street.  Schrade has not been paid any additional salary for the interim position.

Teachers who petitioned the board are also concerned about whether a high school principal will be in place when the next school year begins in September.

“The BKW faculty, staff, and students need to have a full-time administrator in the building who is accessible and available to handle various situations in a timely fashion,” says a letter from the association to the BKW School Board.

On Monday, Robert Bentley Jr., a longtime BKW teacher, addressed the board. 

While the school may appear to look great to an outsider or layperson coming in, Bentley said, “The current underneath is not quite as OK as you might think.”

The staff, he said, has gone “above and beyond the call of duty” and is starting to lose patience and get discouraged by the lack of leadership coming out of the principal’s office.

Bentley likened the relationship of a teacher to a principal as that of a coach to a player and the relationship of a teacher to a superintendent as an employee to an employer. 

“We need that daily contact with a principal who can give us the sense of leadership and direction that we need and also set the tone of the building for the students,” said Bentley. 

Superintendent Schrade responded through The Enterprise on the following day. 

“We really need to have someone in the position permanently at the beginning of next year so that things can get back to normal,” he said. 

“I know the teachers are discouraged and frustrated with the situation,” he said.  “I would, however, say to the parents and the public that the school, in general, is relatively calm.”  

At times, more students are in the halls of the school and the parking lot than normal, Schrade said.

At the end of Monday’s meeting, he said, the school board authorized him to seek a person to help monitor students for the remainder of the year. 

“I think one of our retired teachers might be able to help out,” he said.  “Daily or as they are available.”  

On Monday, teachers commended Schrade, but said they want a full-time high school administrator solely dedicated to the demands of the position.  

“We want to be clear that we fully appreciate all of Mr. Schrade’s efforts in acting as the high school principal,” says the association.  “He has made an obvious effort to spend increasing amounts of time in the building in an attempt to keep things under control.” 

The teachers’ association, however, says conducting the duties of a superintendent, and also fulfilling the role of a high-school principal, is “a monumental task” and that Schrade has been put in the difficult position of assuming the responsibilities of two very demanding jobs and is pulled out of the building for meetings and has administrative responsibilities. 

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