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Mattituck-Cutchogue board approves new physics teacher

Despite the approval of physics and AP Physics teacher Tom Tomaszewski at the Mattituck-Cutchogue board meeting, seven parents, students and alumni returned to the microphone Thursday to voice continued concerns about teacher and coach Steve DeCaro.

Mr. DeCaro was placed on administrative leave the week of Oct. 7 for unspecified reasons. As a result, October’s board meeting brought about 200 community members to show their support for Mr. DeCaro and express their frustrations to the board. A month later, the reason for his leave has still not been disclosed.

Roughly fifty people attended the meeting Thursday evening, filling most of the library seats. A lawyer representing the district, Christopher Venator, was also present. Vice President Marylynn Hoeg told community members that the board recognizes the community’s frustrations regarding “ongoing teacher concerns” and is listening to their comments.

“We are legally bound to confidentiality constraints,” she said. “We have received many emails from people on all sides of these issues. We want you to know that we read every email, we read the posts on social media, as well as the articles in the local paper. We do hear you, and acknowledge as well as appreciate your concern.”

Of the seven people who spoke at the meeting, four were familiar faces — returning to the microphone since last month’s meeting.

This included Lauren Gilbert, who has two boys in Cutchogue-East. She said that Donna Finnigan, a previous fourth-grade teacher in the district, was placed on administrative leave last August, also for an undisclosed reason.  Ms. Finnigan was brought back to the classroom last Wednesday as a math AIS instructor, a teacher that offers extra help to struggling students. Ms. Gilbert said this position doesn’t reflect Ms. Finnigan’s experience.

“Her position within this school district is less than desirable,” she said. “Less than desirable for her, the teachers and the students who should be receiving her amazing skillset in a classroom setting.”

Ms. Gilbert also said she’s frustrated she’s paying for Mr. Tomaszewski, the new teacher, and Mr. DeCaro, who is paid through administrative leave. She said she spoke with Superintendent Jill Gierasch about Mr. DeCaro.

“Ms. Gierasch made me aware that these things take time, which I can understand, but at what cost?” she said. “The cost is our tax money going to two teacher salaries, one who is proven to be successful in our district, being forced to stay home, and one who has been brought in as his leave replacement. The cost is the student’s education which has basically been put on hold for over a month.”

Senior student Madison Schmidt, who said she’s taken five AP courses over the course of her high school career, said her AP Physics grades are suffering as a result of having no teacher in the classroom for roughly a month.

“I signed up for this course with the knowledge of who my teacher was going to be,” she said. “For about a month, we have essentially been left on our own. Most of that time was spent having a class-wide ping-pong tournament.”

Ms. Schmidt also said the class has not completed a single AP Physics lab thus far. According to the College Board website, teachers are required to spend 25 percent of class time on hands-on labs to engage in the seven AP science practices for the course.

As a result, some parents in the district have asked the district to consider modifying AP Physics grades as a result of Mr. DeCaro’s absence.

“As the students grades have been glaringly and negatively affected by this fiasco, is the administration willing to change last quarter’s grade for affected students to a pass-fail?” Chris McDonald, who has a senior student at Mattituck, asked the board.

Laural Olsen, whose senior son is taking AP Physics, also agreed she’s concerned with children’s education after the class had no teacher for a month.

“Honestly, there did not appear to be a plan in place. The replacement for that teacher was approved on tonight’s board agenda, but he has been out of that classroom for over a month.” Ms. Olsen said. “Are we considering a plan for addressing the gap in our children’s education with the college’s they’re applying to?”

After hearing both complaints, Ms. Hoeg said she understands their frustrations since her daughter is a senior student in Physics.

“We will look into the pass-fail option and we will continue to work on this,” she said.

Tom Farrell, the president of the Mattituck-Cutchogue Teachers Association, was the last to speak. While he said he understands the personnel issue, he’s concerned for the union, and requested that the board offers specific guidelines to teachers in the district.

“There’s 130 of us, and there’s a real sense of the ground shifting under our feet and union members not knowing, literally, where they stand,” Mr. Farrell said. “We need guidance. We need people to step up and tell us what they want from us, and some real clear expectations.”

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Photo caption: Chris McDonald, who has a senior student at Mattituck, question how students’ grades would be impacted. (Kate Nalepinski photo)