Mattituck teachers show up to support superintendent

11/21/2012 12:48 PM |

BETH YOUNG PHOTO | English teacher Tom Brennan praised Superintendent James McKenna as a group of teachers looked on in support at last Thursday’s school board meeting.

Mattituck-Cutchogue teachers turned out in force last week to support Superintendent Jim McKenna after the district was recently found liable for age discrimination in the 2009 firing of special education teacher Anthony Claudio. 

Longtime Mattituck High School English teacher Tom Brennan read a letter during Thursday’s school board meeting supporting Mr. McKenna, asking the roughly two dozen teachers in attendance to rise from their seats to show their solidarity with the superintendent.

Mr. McKenna’s decision to deny Mr. Claudio tenure in April 2009 led to a 4-3 school board vote to end the teacher’s probationary employment in a department where most instructors were significantly younger women. On Oct. 22 the jury in the federal civil rights case found that the district did not discriminate against Mr. Claudio based on his gender, but did discriminate against him based on age. Mr. Claudio was awarded $70,000 in back pay.

Mr. McKenna maintained throughout the trial that while Mr. Claudio had a good rapport with students, he did not improve his classroom techniques in order to differentiate instruction for students with different needs.

Mr. Brennan said Thursday that he and his fellow teachers have always felt Mr. McKenna was a supportive leader.

“You are a good man with a genuine sense of decency. I proudly work under your leadership,” he told the superintendent. Mr. Brennan also recalled the steadfast support he received during his own battle with throat cancer 13 years ago, saying Mr. McKenna shared his family’s own tragic experience with cancer and promised that the district would help the instructor recover.

Mr. Claudio’s wife had been suffering from cancer during the final years of his school employment, and the couple both told the jury during the trial that the district had coerced him to sign a document in 2008 stating he wouldn’t sue the district if he was fired after receiving a year’s extension of his probationary employment. Mr. Claudio told the jury he signed it because he was told that if he didn’t sign he would be fired and would lose his health benefits.

Former school board member Jeff Smith told the jury, however, that he believed the one-year extension was granted to give Mr. Claudio time to find another job during a difficult time in his life.

Mr. Brennan shared that portrayal of a caring district Thursday, recalling the support he received from the school while he was fighting cancer.

“Because of a caring board of education and a strong union, I had no worries,” he said.

Mr. Brennan said Mr. McKenna has helped make Mattituck High School one of the top public high schools in the nation, in part because he enthusiastically supported teachers’ ideas for innovative teaching practices.

“The superintendent sets the tone for the district, and Jim’s tone is ‘Let’s try it,’ ” he said. “I’ve disagreed with him. I’ve often lost, but I always respected him.”

The night was not without some fireworks, however.

Board members were split over a request from technology director Gerri Doherty to create a full-time technology position, in light of the upcoming retirement of part-time technology assistant John Krakowka.

Given the district’s ever-increasing technology needs, Ms, Doherty said, there is far more work than the technology department can currently handle.

She said her office often receives 20 to 30 phone calls to its “help desk” each day, in addition to their work running the computer systems in all the school’s buildings, including the electronic lunch check-out system.

“We are so dependent on technology,” she said. “If the lunch lines are down, that’s a priority.

“You never want only one person to know all the passwords,” she added.

Board members Janique Nine and Douglas Cooper were the only members to vote for the position. Board president Jerry Diffley said he wanted to see how Mattituck-Cutchogue’s technology staffing and salaries compare with those in nearby districts.

Mr. McKenna said the full-time position would likely cost the district $60,000, including salary and benefits, though IT workers in the private sector often earn more than that.

“We need to benchmark ourselves to other districts. We need that data before we just create the position,” said Mr. Diffley.

Board member Sarah Hassildine, who at one point worked in the school’s technology office, said she understands how much work there is to do.

“When I was there working 20 hours, if you worked 30 hours, you still couldn’t get all the work done,” she said.

But she ultimately voted against creating the position and board members will likely revisit the issue next month after obtaining the information Mr. Diffley requested.

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