New Suffolk cuts veteran teacher to cover $160,000 shortfall

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04/29/2015 7:00 AM |
From left, New Suffolk school district's curriculum writer Martha Kennelly with Cutchogue-based attorney Frank Blangiardo at Tuesday's school board meeting. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)

New Suffolk school district curriculum writer Martha Kennelly with her Cutchogue-based attorney Frank Blangiardo at Tuesday’s school board meeting. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)

The New Suffolk Board of Education has decided the best way to cover a looming $160,000 gap in its elementary school district’s budget is to eliminate the position of the teacher whose return to the district helped cause it.

Now that teacher, tenured 21-year veteran Martha Kennelly, is fighting to keep her job. 

The school board had unanimously voted to abolish Ms. Kennelly’s position —  effective June 30 — at its regular meeting earlier this month. She has since informed the district that she’s appealing the decision with the state commissioner of education.

Ms. Kennelly returned to the school in September after spending the previous 10 years on special assignment at the Mid East Suffolk Teacher Center in Ridge. The district continued to pay her salary while she worked at the center,  but that money was reimbursed by the state. Teachers on special assignment at the center, which provides professional development, technology training and resources to Suffolk County educators, remain contracted faculty members in their home districts, enabling them to return to their previous jobs if desired or if the program encounters budget cuts.

Since Ms. Kennelly decided to end her special assignment and return to the school last year, the district is no longer receiving reimbursement for her salary, causing a 21 percent decline in revenue, district officials have said.

School board president Tony Dill said that scenario caused the district to have to make a difficult decision this budget season in order to avoid raising the tax levy by $160,000.

“If she had given us more notice that she was going to come back, perhaps there were other things we might have been able to do,” Mr. Dill said after a special meeting Tuesday to discuss the 2015-16 budget.

“It’s unfortunate for her. It’s unfortunate for the school,” he said. “We just had to look at a hard choice and somebody, or some people, were going to get the short end of the straw. We did not want the people ending up with a short straw to be the kids.”

Ms. Kennelly, who attended Tuesday’s meeting with a local attorney at her side, has maintained that she told the district in 2013 to inform her if any of the school’s other teachers stepped down so she could return to the classroom. She said they never did so before hiring a replacement last year for former head teacher Holly Plymale.

Attorney Frank Blangiardo of Cutchogue, who was previously successful in a federal discrimination case by one of his clients against the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District, said he believes Ms. Kennelly  has “many, many, many avenues to proceed” in any potential action against the New Suffolk district.

“Ms. Kennelly has to decide which way she’d like to go,” he said after Tuesday’s meeting, describing the school board’s action as “so outrageous and unique.”

Ms. Kennelly’s position is the one being eliminated since the district now has two tenure areas, a traditional K-6 track and a newer hybrid track for teachers dual-certified in special education, Mr. Dill explained.

Ms. Kennelly is currently on the K-6 track and the school’s other two teachers are on the hybrid track. Mr. Dill said the school board had to identify which tenure area it wanted to cut and chose K-6.

Since Ms. Kennelly has only been dual-certified in special education since August, her position would still be the one eliminated if she were added to the hybrid tenure track, since she’d have the shortest service time in that area, he said. 

When asked for comment after Tuesday’s meeting, Ms. Kennelly, who has most recently been working to draft Common Core-aligned curriculum for the district, said she hopes “there will be more community input when they see the changes that are being made in the budget.”

The school board has scheduled a special meeting for 5 p.m. Thursday to adopt its budget. Residents will vote on the spending plan May 19.

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