Update: Missing videotape headlines day one of Mattituck Schools trial

BETH YOUNG FILE PHOTO | Mattituck superintendent James McKenna at a school board meeting last year.

A missing video recording of the Mattituck-Cutchogue Board of Education meeting when Anthony Claudio’s employment as a special education teacher ended was a major theme during the first day of testimony in his case against the district for age and gender discrimination.

Opening statements in the civil suit filed in 2009 by Mr. Claudio against his former employer began Tuesday afternoon before Judge Joseph Bianco at the federal courthouse in Central Islip. Jury selection was completed that morning, with three male and five female jurors having been selected.

In his complaint, Mr. Claudio, 50, alleges that he was not offered tenure in a special education department where 28 of 30 employees were female and most were younger than 30. He’s seeking reinstatement, back pay and punitive damages in his complaint.

Mr. Claudio’s attorney, Frank Blangiardo of Cutchogue, said during his opening statement that the ratio of female employees to male employees at the school is 8 to 1 and it has become “chock-full of young, young women” since 2005 when James McKenna became district superintendent.

“The evidence will show Mr. McKenna hired young women he can mold,” Mr. Blangiardo said.

The Board of Education voted 4-3 on April 16, 2009 to end Mr. Claudio’s probationary period, with board president Jerry Diffley, then-vice president Debra Cahill and board member Janique Nine voting in opposition to the resolution, according to minutes from the meeting.

Mr. Claudio also alleges in his suit that in the days leading up to the board meeting, school board members were “threatened and influenced” by Mr. McKenna and high school principal Shawn Petretti to vote along with the superintendent’s recommendation.

The location of the video recording of that school board meeting dominated Tuesday’s testimony.

The plaintiff’s first witness, district clerk Cathy Gilliard, who also serves as Mr. McKenna’s secretary, said the school’s audio/visual coordinator Lisa Hinsch would bring her VHS tapes of the meetings and they were kept in her office.

“I know it was videotaped that night,” Ms. Gilliard said of the April 16, 2009 school board meeting. “After that, I don’t know.”

Ms. Hinsch was later called to the stand and she testified that she was hired in Oct. 2008 but didn’t start collecting the videotapes until June 2009. Prior to that, Ms. Gilliard collected them, she said.

After a high school student records a Board of Education meeting, Ms. Hinsch said she drops off the videotape at Southold Town Hall in order for it to be broadcast on public access and then returns it to Ms. Gilliard.

Ms. Gilliard testified that the school has a system in place where people can borrow the videotapes and she said “several” 2009 board meeting video recording are missing.

In addition to the missing VHS tape, Ms. Gilliard’s appointment as district clerk was also discussed during the trial.

Former school board member Andrew McGowan, who served from 2005 to 2008, testified Tuesday he voted against Ms. Gilliard’s appointment as district clerk in 2007 because he had concerns about her working as Mr. McKenna’s secretary too, which she has since 2003.

“It was a contested issue,” Mr. McGowan said. “I was concerned about the transparency of the process.”

Mr. Claudio was 46 years old when his probationary period ended. He charges that the district coerced him into signing an agreement the year before that stated he would not sue for tenure after the district extended his probationary period one year prior to his termination.

According to Mr. Claudio’s complaint, Mr. Petretti assured the plaintiff that he would attain tenure if he signed the agreement and continued on track. Additionally, Mr. Blangiardo argued Tuesday that Mr. Claudio decided to sign the agreement because his wife was sick with cancer and he needed health benefits.

Mr. McGowan also testified about the spring 2008 school board executive session to extend Mr. Claudio’s probation but not offer him tenure.

Mr. McGowan described the meeting as a “heated discussion” and said he had walked out, but later came back, because he was “upset about the process.”

“I said ‘It should be brought to a vote,’” Mr. McGowan testified. “Mr. McKenna said ‘If I don’t put it on the agenda, you don’t vote.’”

Jeltje DeJong, a Smithtown-based attorney representing the Mattituck school district, described the issue as a “legal question” and said it was later determined a school board can’t override a superintendent’s recommendation to deny a teacher’s tenure.

The district says the decision to not offer tenure and part ways with the special education teacher was based on his performance.

Ms. DeJong said during her opening statement that the offer to extend Mr. Claudio’s three-year probationary term by another year was made in order to give him enough time to find employment elsewhere.

“He was not a good special education teacher,” Ms. DeJong said. “It wasn’t an easy decision for the administration.”

Judge Bianco said in court Tuesday that the trial could last as long as three weeks or as many as 10 court sessions.

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