School chief: Gender not a factor in decision to deny tenure

BETH YOUNG FILE PHOTO | Superintendent James McKenna speaking during a school board meeting last year.

Mattituck-Cutchogue school superintendent Jame McKenna testified Thursday that age and gender were “absolutely not” factors in the denial of tenure for a former special education teacher pursuing a federal civil rights action against the district.

Mr. McKenna said that while Anthony Claudio, 50, had a rapport with students and faculty, he was cited in numerous instructional observations as needing to improve his classroom management and tailor his lessons to meet the individual needs of his special education students.

“You do not hire to be a chaperone, you do not hire to be a coach,” Mr. McKenna said. “You’re hired to be a classroom teacher.”

Mr. Claudio has alleged that he was denied tenure and ultimately terminated in 2009 because of his age and gender. The civil trial began Tuesday before Judge Joseph Bianco in Central Islip.

On Thursday, the superintendent said Mr. Claudio had a “fun and friendly manner” with students but did not improve his differentiated instruction skills with students to fit their needs.

He said the district was about evenly divided between male and female employees, though the special education staff was mostly female. When asked why there was a higher number of women in the school, Mr. McKenna said he didn’t know, but insisted that gender or age played no part in his decisions on who to recommend to the board of education, nor did he ever “alter” resumes to hire more women.

The superintendent’s statement came during a lengthy direct and cross-examination that focused on the lack of formal evaluations in Mr. Claudio’s final years, how Mr. Claudio was fired by the school board and the circumstances around an agreement that stated Mr. Claudio would not sue for tenure if the district extended his initial probationary period one year prior to his termination.

Mr. McKenna testified that the discussion of extending Mr. Claudio’s probationary period was to give him time to look for another job while his wife received cancer treatments at the time.

During direct examination, Mr. McKenna said he and the board discussed the measure because they were concerned for Mr. Claudio’s future, but were “forced” to terminate him after he refused to resign after his probationary period.

Mr. McKenna said most teachers who leave the district resign so termination will not appear on their resume.

However, in the trial’s deposition, Mr. McKenna had testified that he hadn’t spoken to the board about adding a fourth year to Mr. Claudio’s probation. He later testified that he couldn’t remember whether he spoke to the board or not.

The superintendent was also questioned on the testimony of high school principal Shawn Petretti, who said Wednesday that he was “confident” Mr. Claudio would receive tenure.

Also at issue were the lack of formal observations filed at the district for Mr. Claudio. No evaluations were written up during his final year in the district. Mr. McKenna said due to time constraints some administrators did not write up their evaluations.

But Judge Bianco told the plaintiff’s lawyer, Frank Blangiardo of Cutchogue, that he would instruct the jury on the state education law Mr. Blangiardo had argued was violated.

He told Mr. Blangiardo that the focus of the case was whether or not there was a civil rights violation, not whether or not proper procedure was followed.

“If they didn’t follow the agreement, [Mr. Claudio] doesn’t win,” the judge said.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Blangiardo was warned by Judge Bianco after he asked Mattituck Special Education director Tricia Desederio about a previous lawsuit she testified at during direct examination.

Judge Bianco said the lawyer was attempting to distract jurors by hinting at the prior lawsuit against the district, adding that he “wasn’t born yesterday.”

Mr. Blangiardo apologized, but the judge continued to warn him.

“You keep apologizing but you throw something out there and it can’t be undone. The apologies aren’t helping because it’s too late,” Judge Bianco said before speaking directly to Mr. Claudio and urging him to speak to his lawyer about following proper procedure.