By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO October 25, 2005 Emotions erupted at last Thursdays meeting of the Monticello Central School Board of Education, creating one of the most turbulent board meetings in recent memory.
Three department heads came under heavy fire, and the high school principal stepped down. Students and parents cried and shouted throughout the tense gathering.
High School Principal Departs
The abrupt retirement, effective immediately, of Monticello High School Principal Paula Sapphire was announced and received through applause by some in the audience.
Superintendent Eileen Casey and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Patrick Michel both declined to comment as to the reason for her retirement.
Board President Alyce Van Etten said the board was not told of Sapphires reason to retire. The board received a memo from Casey stating the retirement.
The sudden departure of Sapphire took place on the heels of a weeklong spree of violence at the school, which ended in the arrests of a dozen students, including some on weapons charges.
She is being replaced by Interim Principal George Vanderzell, a former Superintendent of the Tri-Valley School District and interim principal at Middletown High School.
Teachers Rally Against Administrator
About 80 teachers poured into the Robert Kaiser Middle School Library last Thursday to show support for Monticello Teachers Association President Dan Berger and 40-year faculty member Neil Jacobs, a highly respected math teacher who called on the board to take action against Math Director Gary Furman.
In a passionate speech, which drew the applause of many in the audience and later the tears of his students, Jacobs told the board of how Furman has crushed the morale of the department.
I love teaching. I love my kids. I love my students. We know that you are stressed by state requirements and that stress must be transferred to us. As best we can, we try not to show stress. We are here to complain about extreme stress, stated Jacobs.
He called the math department a hostile work environment due to Furman.
We are insulted and belittled, claimed Jacobs. We are micromanaged and bullied.
He read a letter to the board allegedly written directly to him by Furman. In the letter, Furman called the lesson plans of Jacobs inadequate. . . . You continuously fail to develop sound lessons that have any meaning.
Jacobs said the letter shows Furman is a bully.
This is a person who feels he has a free hand . . . who doesnt think he has to hide, said Jacobs.
Among several pieces of evidence he cited to prove Furmans alleged micromanagement, Jacobs provided a letter from Furman which he called ridiculous. In the letter, Furman apparently directed all math teachers to review a three-ring binder in one day by completing an electronic spreadsheet for each class for each day of the 27-day school year with each lesson plan. At the bottom of the letter, he said he would be in Albany for the day.
Jacobs said that math teachers dont have time to complete such work they are too busy teaching.
Some teachers have been brought to tears after meeting with Furman, he said.
Your responsibility is to investigate and stop this abuse, he told the board.
Berger, a longtime science teacher, said the actions detailed by Jacobs are the tip of the iceberg of stress throughout the district.
He said he has been unable to obtain the curriculum from Furman for the last two weeks. He called Furmans approach dehumanizing. Morale has never been this low.
Berger threatened to file a claim against the district if it did not act.
Yvonne Housman, who is the parent of a third grade special education student at the Kenneth L. Rutherford Elementary School, complained of her young child being stressed out from two to three new math topics a week.
Casey directed faculty and parents not to use the names of the teachers and administrators involved. Van Etten echoed that call. But board members Jacob Billig and Robert Stewart defended the publics desire to name names.
Susan Purcell, along with some students at the meeting, defended Jacobs for teaching her daughters honors math classes. She called him brilliant. The senior class president called him a great teacher.
Afterwards, Billig called upon Michel to deliver a report to the board on the math department. Michel said it would take some time.
Another source of discontent has been the music department, whose faculty, as well as parents of students, have been complaining about Director Dr. Kevin Dirth for some time. They have been promised an independent evaluation since the summer, which had not taken place by the last meeting. Casey said the evaluators would be reviewing the department and meeting with staff this week.
Transportation Remains an Issue
In addition, the board continued to be inundated by parents upset with Department of Transportation Director Martin Gershowitz and his lack of response to their calls for bus pickup at their homes. Among the cases is local veterinarian Dr. Lawrence Mauer, who has been in front of the board since the beginning of the school year, attempting to have his five-year-old son dropped off at his office on Broadway, rather than a mile down the street at the Farmers Market.
Mauer called the denial by Gershowitz to be arbitrary since no criteria was used to describe the safety issue at his office.
Describing Gershowitzs reasoning as subjective, Mauer said he was told that the denial was due to the amount of traffic which would have to stop behind the bus. If that were true, said the doctor, then many other stops would have to be eliminated.
Mauer has pointed out in the past how the bus stops at the bottom of a hill at the Farmers Market, which he says is more dangerous than his stop, which is at the top of a hill.
Casey cautioned of the possibility of legal liability for any accidents. But she and Business Administrator Gladys Baxter, who oversees the transportation department, both surveyed the area and offered to have the bus stop slightly before Mauers office at the Shawarma King. The doctor decried that stop as dangerous during the winter time when the business is closed and the snow builds up to a wall.
In another case, Town of Thompson Highway Superintendent Richard Benjamin and his deputy were in attendance about a road where children are not being picked up at their homes. Benjamins deputy has pledged at previous meetings to upgrade Leonard Road to allow for the pickup of several students at their homes. He has also said he would do the same for other roads.
Gershowitz has denied both requests but was not at Thursdays meeting due to a weeklong illness, according to officials. A special meeting was called for tonight at 5 p.m. to hear Gershowitzs explanation and see if the problems can be worked out.
Gershowitz has called the pick-ups unsafe, as he has done with a number of other bus stops in the county where there used to be house-to-house pickup. One such place in the Town of Bethel, on Plank Road, has been the source of a two-year fight by parent June Lombardi to receive bus service to her home on the road, rather than at the intersection of Route 17B at the middle of a hill in Mongaup Valley. The Town of Bethel Board has stepped in and is attempting to fix the road to remedy safety issues there.
Susan Purcell, who formed Community Advocates, a group of concerned parents and others, intent on improving the school, complained that Gershowitz has not attended any of the board meetings this school year, despite the ongoing issues in his department.
Among them are several angry bus drivers, who have complained about an allegedly hostile working environment which includes unwarranted suspensions, retaliation against those who speak out, discrimination, exporting of jobs outside the union, and other issues. One bus driver said that Gershowitz has ordered drivers to stop talking to parents. Purcell called for an investigation of the department.
Board member Robert Stewart was clearly upset with the lack of response from Gershowitz and questioned why he did not have his assistant superintendent show up. Board member Jacob Billig said Gershowitz should have responded more in writing, rather than just one memo.
Stewart described his longstanding frustration with the department and lambasted both Gershowitz and the administrations lack of action on the matter.
I am upset that this issue [Mauer and Leonard Drive] has taken so long, Stewart complained. The equitable treatment of students is essential. I have asked for a bus review for over a year.
Stewart said that it was the board which has the power to authorize bus routes.
The board was faced with a vote on the appeals by Mauer and the residents of Leonard Drive for bus service to their homes. But the board voted to postpone the measure until they heard from Gershowitz tonight. Stewart and senior board member Eugene Nesin voted against putting off the decision on the appeal.
Board member Susan Horton said, I do not want to approve an appeal without [Gershowitz] being here.
Board President Alyce Van Etten and board member Robert Rosengard agreed.
In another matter, Billig submitted a list of questions to Michel based on what he observed at a recent meeting of Community Advocates. Aside from Nesin, Billig is the only board member to have attended a meeting of the group.
For example, Billig asked about the constant locking of bathrooms throughout the high school, a complaint of students for years. Michel responded that the school was acting no differently than other schools but said he was willing to discuss the matter.
The student representative who sits on the board (with no voting power) is Student Council President Joseph DAbbraccio, who said the lack of open bathrooms in the high school was causing students to be late to class.
Complaints Taken Very Seriously
At the conclusion of the meeting, an emotional Van Etten responded that she appreciates your passion and emotion. This will be taken very seriously.
Absent from the meeting were board members Richard Feller and Vivian Liff.