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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 17, 2008

Draw together to form a more perfect school district

Illustration by Forest Byrd

As the Guilderland School District continues in an uproar over the reassignment of two of its teachers, we have written as well this week about two important contracts.

“Contract“ comes from the Latin word meaning “to draw together.”

One of the chief negotiators for the district is Susan Tangorre, the assistant superintendent for human resources. She said she follows the district’s operating principle of listening with an intent to understand.  When negotiating a contract, she said, she uses a collaborative approach. “We’re looking at what works for management. They’re looking at what works for employees,” she said. “Collaboration doesn’t mean you always agree with each other. It means you work at a problem with an intent to solve it.”

Larry Tuxbury, an English teacher who served as the chief negotiator for the teachers, put it eloquently: “Each side brings problems to the table that need solutions, then we work together,” he said. “Some of the best changes that we made are collaborative. Understanding is the first step on the road to satisfaction with a contract.”

What the school district has been lacking in the current uproar is respect for one another’s viewpoints, a sense of sharing a common ground. Recent rhetoric has cast school board members as cowards, a campaign has been launched calling for the resignation of the superintendent, and a teacher facing re-assignment has vowed he’ll take the matter to court.

Early on, government teacher Matthew Nelligan was able to convince the public that his transfer was based on an administrator’s witch hunt.  Teacher Ann Marie McManus  e-mailed students about the situation, and they responded, rallying behind their teachers. The two teachers have become a cause celebré.

We believe they are good teachers. Over the years, we have profiled Nelligan and his innovative teaching techniques several times. Listening to McManus’s students talk about her love of and her dedication to her subject and her students, we cannot help but admire her.

We do not believe the students are “pawns” as some have suggested. We believe they are passionate and caring advocates.

But neither do we see a need to vilify the school board or the district administrators. We have run their statements at length this week in hopes our readers will come to understand, although they may not agree with, their viewpoints.

We also can’t discredit the superintendent’s view that the district needs to follow its rock-bottom tenet of respecting diversity. Fifteen years ago, we praised in this space the district’s response when racial slurs appeared on a school bulletin board. Later, we detailed the stories of gay and lesbian students who were courageous enough to come out on the pages of our newspaper; they helped form a support group, which some opposed as an “immoral and divisive organization.”

The high school principal at the time, John Whipple, stood behind the group. “They’re at a point they’ve hidden for years,” he told us in 1995. “They’ve been hassled enough. They don’t want to hide anymore. They want people to understand them.”

Whipple said then that a teacher, overhearing a student use a racial slur, would know that was incorrect and would know how to deal with it. “If someone calls someone else ‘faggot,’ I’m not sure the staff knows how to deal with it,” he said. “As a faculty, our own awareness needs to be heightened.”

How much has changed in 13 years?

McGuire said the transfer of Nelligan and McManus is not punishment. Fueled by complaints of harassment from a gay teacher, McGuire hired an outside consultant, Michele Paludi, who found a hostile work environment in the social studies department. McGuire says the transfers and reconfiguration are to give the department a fresh start.

Let’s listen for a moment with the intent to understand. If the work environment is hostile, shouldn’t it be changed?

We remember the last time Michele Paludi was hired by the district to interview and report to the superintendent and board.

Some parents were upset because a volleyball coach had labeled their daughters “sluts.” An in-house investigation found no serious problems. The parents kept pushing, so Paludi was hired and her report, which documented a hostile environment, eventually led the board to reverse itself and settle with the coach on leaving.

The then-superintendent said our coverage had forced the issue. We felt retaliation in the fall of 2003 at the same time the district was announcing its anti-bullying campaign. When our sportswriter went to write his fall preview stories, he was both admonished and shunned. The football coach at the time refused to speak to him for most of the season.

So we know that teachers can stick together and shun someone.

We also remember the last time the school board’s meeting hall was packed and Guilderland was in the media spotlight as students called for a reversal. They wanted to keep Coach Don Snyder, who had founded Guilderland’s soccer program. The board reversed the then-superintendent’s decision.

We wrote in this space in favor of that reversal because we could see no reason for the dismissal. But this time, we have two reports that point to a problem. Reading through the pages of redacted type, we can still hear, however faintly, the voice of someone who is suffering.

We can imagine a young man in what is probably one of his first teaching jobs being hurt by taunts and slurs. We imagine he is loath to file a formal complaint because he wants to fit in with his co-workers. Reading between the lines of blacked-out type, we feel his pain.

He tells Paludi he is being shunned by the other teachers, that he doesn’t trust anyone in the department, that he feels powerless. She writes of an atmosphere where comments are made about a woman’s breasts and a hand gesture is made that simulates masturbation.

We can see there’s a need to change things.

We’re not saying the district went about that change in the best way. Before the factions at Guilderland become any more divided, we urge each party to look for common ground. Surely everyone can agree that the central mission of the schools is to serve the students.

What would best serve them — Court battles? Name-calling? Demands for resignation?

We believe it’s not too late for the board, the administration, and the teachers to sit down together at the same table and work out a solution. It won’t, of course, be exactly what one side wants, but it will be what’s best for the students.

There has been much rhetoric at the packed meetings over the last few weeks about our heritage as Americans being based on battles — for independence, for freedoms, for our rights. We would argue what really defines us as a nation is compromise. It was compromise by our founding fathers that allowed us to create the document, our Constitution, that defines our nation today.

Let us draw together to form a more perfect school district.

— Meliss Hale Spencer, editor

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