Principal testifies he felt ‘confident’ teacher would receive tenure

Former special education teacher Anthony Claudio in the 2009 Mattituck High School yearbook, his final school year with the district.

Anthony Claudio was told by his principal at Mattituck High School that he’d likely be granted tenure about a year before the former special education teacher was fired from the district, the principal testified in federal court Wednesday.

Mattituck High School principal Shawn Petretti told jurors he felt confident Mr. Claudio would receive tenure following a meeting between himself, special education director Tricia Desiderio and district superintendent James McKenna near the end of Mr. Claudio’s final year of his original three-year probationary term.

Mr. Claudio, 50, has alleged in a civil complaint that gender and age played a role in his being denied tenure and ultimately terminated in 2009 from a Mattituck-Cutchogue school district that employs mostly women – many of whom are younger than 30. The district has maintained that Mr. Claudio’s employment was terminated based on his performance in the classroom and his participation in special education committee meetings.

The trial got under way Tuesday before Judge Joseph Bianco at the federal courthouse in Central Islip.

In his complaint, Mr. Claudio states that Mr. Petretti told him in 2008 that he would likely receive tenure the following year if he signed an agreement to not sue for tenure after his probationary period with the district was extended for one more year.

Mr. Petretti said in a conversation with Mr. Claudio in the winter of 2008 he mentioned that he thought tenure would be granted that spring. The principal said that conversation came prior to the signing of any agreement.

“I came out with the impression [Mr. Claudio] would get tenure,” Mr. Petretti testified.

The principal described Mr. Claudio as a “team player” and said he admired his involvement with the local fire department and how he helped with various school and community events.

“He was the person I would go to if I needed something,” Mr. Petretti said.

The district’s school psychologist Elisabeth Terry and guidance counselor Brian Lynch also testified Wednesday, both saying they had no problems with Mr. Claudio’s job performance.

Mr. Petretti painted a different picture of Mr. Claudio’s abilities as an instructor during cross-examination by Jeltje DeJong, a Smithtown-based attorney representing the school district.

When Ms. DeJong asked Mr. Petretti if he agreed with Mr. McKenna’s reasons to deny Mr. Claudio tenure, he said he did and added that Mr. Claudio failed to cater to individual students’ needs. Reviewing classroom material was a constant  problem for the teacher, he said.

“There was slow improvement, but it wasn’t very strong,” Mr. Petretti said.

Although the principal described his final classroom evaluation of Mr. Claudio during the 2008-09 school year as “fair,” he testified that he didn’t write-up a review because he knew Mr. Claudio wouldn’t be working in the district the following year.

“He was determined to retain his position,” Mr. Petretti said. “I was trying to make a point to Mr. Claudio, he wasn’t going to get tenure.”

Mr. Petretti also testified Wednesday that he spoke in 2008 to Mr. Claudio’s wife, Mary, who worked as a substitute aide and a substitute secretary for the district, about what her husband’s options were.

Mr. Petretti said he told Ms. Claudio, who was battling ovarian cancer, that if Mr. Claudio resigned, he would be able to keep his health benefits through the summer. If he did not, the Board of Education would have to take action and their family health benefits would end following the official decision, he said.

“It was out of concern,” Mr. Petretti said, when asked why he had the conversation with Ms. Claudio.

Mr. Petretti also testified that he was the one who approached the administration with the idea to extend Mr. Claudio’s term by another year so he could have enough time to find employment elsewhere.

But school board member Janique Nine and former board vice president Debra Cahill testified Wednesday that the agreement stated the extension was for additional evaluation for consideration of tenure and made no reference to Mr. Claudio needing to find a new job.

Ms. Nine and Ms. Cahill, both of whom voted against ending Mr. Claudio’s probationary period during an April 16, 2009 school board meeting, said they didn’t agree with Mr. McKenna’s decision to deny Mr. Claudio tenure because an evaluation wasn’t completed during the teacher’s final year with the district.

“There was nothing,” Ms. Nine said, testifying that Mr. Claudio’s personnel file contained no reviews for  his final year of employment. “Not one observation [was filed].”

The trial resumes Thursday morning at 10:15 a.m. Mr. McKenna and Ms. Claudio are expected to take the stand.

[email protected]