10/17/2012 6:00 PM

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Former Mattituck teacher Anthony Claudio, right, enters the federal courthouse in Central Islip Wednesday morning.

The jury will deliberate Thursday morning in former Mattituck-Cutchogue special education teacher Anthony Claudio’s age and gender discrimination case against his former employer.

Mr. Claudio, 50, alleges in his complaint, which was filed in 2009, that he was terminated from a special education department where 28 of 30 employees were female and most were younger than 30. He’s seeking reinstatement, back pay and punitive damages.

Mr. Claudio was one of four witnesses who testified Wednesday morning. Superintendent James McKenna, high school principal Shawn Petretti and former school board member Lynne Krauza also testified on the fifth day of testimony in the trial, which began Oct. 9 before Judge Joseph Bianco at the federal courthouse in Central Islip.

Defense attorney Jeltje DeJong delivered her closing argument Wednesday afternoon, in which she argued that Mr. Claudio was well-liked in his time with the district but was not an effective classroom instructor.

“Everyone, including Mr. McKenna, likes Mr. Claudio,” Ms. DeJong said. “But that doesn’t make him a good special education teacher.”

Mr. Claudio’s attorney, Frank Blangiardo of Cutchogue, said in his rebuttal that the plaintiff didn’t have a chance of maintaining his employment in a special education department where women outnumbered men 8 to 1 under Mr. McKenna’s administration.

“Thirty-eight women, two males, we know that is way too low,” Mr. Blangiardo told the jury. “[Men make up] 5 percent of the special education department. One of them was Mr. Claudio and he got terminated.”

After dismissing the jury for the day Wednesday, Judge Bianco had more harsh words for Mr. Blangiardo, who was reprimanded frequently throughout the trial. The judge said he found it troubling that the attorney told the jury in his rebuttal that if they found the district discriminated against Mr. Claudio then that would help to remove Mr. McKenna from his position.

“That’s not proper,” Judge Bianco said. “There’s a long list, but I’m not going to go through it now. I’m going to leave it up to the jury.”

The eight members of the jury were instructed to return to the courthouse Thursday for deliberation beginning at 9:45 a.m.

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A jury verdict could be handed down as early as today in former Mattituck-Cutchogue special education teacher Anthony Claudio’s age and gender discrimination case against his former employer.

Mr. Claudio, 50, who was one of four witnesses questioned on the trial’s fourth day Tuesday, will be back on the stand for continued cross examination by the school district’s attorney when the trial resumes at 9:30 a.m. He alleges in his complaint, which was filed in 2009, that he was terminated from a special education department where 28 of 30 employees were female and most were younger than 30. He’s seeking reinstatement, back pay and punitive damages.

The trial began Oct. 9 before Judge Joseph Bianco at the federal courthouse in Central Islip.

Much of the testimony Tuesday centered around the events of the April 16, 2009 school board meeting in which the Board of Education, acting on the decision of district superintendent James McKenna to deny Mr. Claudio tenure, voted 4-3 to end the teacher’s probationary period and his employment with the district.

Former Mattituck-Cutchogue school board member Jeffrey Smith said he agreed with Mr. McKenna’s decision to not offer Mr. Claudio tenure after attending a Special Education Parent Teacher’s Association meeting where several parents expressed concern over the teacher’s interactions with their children.

“The way he spoke to those kids, I’m sorry, the man does not belong in a classroom,” he told the court.

Mr. Smith said board members were told by a school district attorney at an executive session before the April 2009 meeting that it did not have to host a public vote to end Mr. Claudio’s probationary period since state law grants superintendents sole authority to make tenure recommendations. Mr. Smith called the vote unnecessary and said it was held at the urging of board members who opposed Mr. McKenna’s decision to deny Mr. Claudio tenure.

Typically the board votes only on resolutions to grant tenure to teachers who receive the superintendent’s recommendation and no formal vote is held for those not granted tenure, Mr. Smith testified. Teachers who do not receive tenure after three years of probation are usually given a chance to resign before their employment is terminated, he said.

Board trustee Janique Nine, one of three members to oppose the resolution to end Mr. Claudio’s probationary period, was recalled by the plaintiff’s attorney Tuesday to testify that Mr. McKenna took a “straw poll” from board members during the executive session so he could gauge how they would vote during the public session.

Ms. Nine said the executive session got “heated” after she, board president Jerry Diffley and former vice president Deborah Cahill offered strong objections over the tenure denial.

“This was [Mr. McKenna’s] decision, we didn’t have any power there,” Ms. Nine said. “We weren’t going to get him to change his mind.”

Mr. Claudio’s wife Mary, a former substitute teacher and clerk in the district, testified Tuesday that Mr. McKenna told her Mr. Claudio wasn’t being offered tenure because you “can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

She cried when questioned about a performance review Mr. McKenna gave Mr. Claudio on November 10, 2005, two days after Ms. Claudio, who was diagnosed that year with ovarian cancer, had surgery.

Mr. Claudio alleges in his complaint that having the review done at that time was unfair since the superintendent knew about his wife’s surgery when he scheduled it.

When questioned Tuesday by Jeltje DeJong, the Smithtown-based attorney representing the Mattituck school district, Mr. Claudio testified that he did not request a date change for the performance appraisal and that he left the teacher comment section on his review blank.

Both Mr. Claudio and his wife said he signed an agreement in 2008 to not sue for tenure after his probationary period was initially extended one year. He said he signed it because he was told he would be fired if he did not and he’d then lose his health benefits. He said he was also assured by Mattituck High School principal Shawn Petretti that he would be granted tenure the following year.

Mr. Smith testified Tuesday that it was clear to him in 2008 that Mr. Claudio would not be granted tenure the following year.

“We were giving him a gift year so he could get a new job before he was denied tenure,” Mr. Smith told the jury.

For the second time during the trial, the jury was asked to leave the courtroom so Judge Bianco could reprimand Mr. Claudio’s attorney for inserting his own opinions into questioning. He was also told multiple times Tuesday to not ask questions regarding the legality of the April 2009 executive session, since Mr. Claudio’s complaint makes no reference to any violation of open meetings law.

“The jury will not be asked to make any determination on open meetings law,” Judge Bianco told attorney Frank Blangiardo of Cutchogue. “Repeatedly bringing this matter up will only confuse them.”

Before jury deliberation, at least two more defense witnesses — Mr. McKenna and former school board trustee Lynne Krauza — are expected to be called Wednesday. Ms. DeJong said she might also call Mr. Petretti to testify, who like Mr. McKenna was called as a witness by Mr. Blangiardo last week.

Judge Bianco said if the jury does not deliberate today it will likely do so Thursday morning.

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04/27/12 3:00pm
04/27/2012 3:00 PM

BETH YOUNG PHOTO | Local community members discussed teenage drug use Tuesday night during a meeting at Mattituck High School.

Last Friday, when three Mattituck High School students were arrested for marijuana possession, they weren’t the only North Forkers getting high.

April 20 — known within the drug culture as 420, which is also the time in the afternoon many marijuana users get high — is something of a national holiday for pot smokers, and Mattituck school officials were aware that some kids would probably come to school high, says Mattituck principal Shawn Petretti.

Those arrests, and the larger problem of heroin in the community, were on the minds of many who attended The North Fork Alliance’s town hall meeting on alcohol and drug use at Mattituck High School Tuesday night.

Mr. Petretti said he’s been to two funerals this year for Mattituck alumni in their late 20s who died of drug overdoses.
One of those students was Mike Maffetone, who died in February. His brother, Paul Maffetone, was in the audience Tuesday night.

“I graduated from Mattituck five years ago. I never heard the word heroin here,” Mr. Maffetone said, adding that he used to drink screwdrivers while he was in school and didn’t get caught, but he didn’t ever believe his brother would do drugs.

Mr. Maffetone said it’s very easy for kids to become addicted to heroin after they’ve been given painkillers for sports-related injuries.

“How many kids go through ACL surgery in high school and get addicted to painkillers?” he asked. “I had hernia surgery and the doctor gave me 90 oxycodone pills and two refills. It only takes 60 pills to get addicted. If you look at the cost of pills, and then a bag of heroin costs $5, a lot of people think their kids won’t stick needles in them, but they’re wrong.”

Kym Laube, executive director of HUGS (Human Understanding and Growth) in Westhampton and the forum’s keynote speaker, said that while there’s a great fear of heroin within the media, alcohol kills more kids at the high school level than all illegal drugs combined. Alcohol is the drug most frequently used by teenagers, followed by marijuana.

Mr. Petretti said two parents of Mattituck students contacted him over the weekend with more details about the marijuana use on school property last Friday, and the school has worked to encourage students to inform the district about drugs.

“At least 80 percent of the time, when we find out about drugs it’s based on students telling us something. There are ways to do that without being a rat,” he said. “You’re hearing about more drug issues in part because more kids are coming forward.”

One of those kids wasn’t afraid to tell the public what she’s seen.

“A lot of people smoked pot after school” on Friday, said 10th-grader Britney Longley, a member of the school’s Students Against Destructive Decisions, at the meeting. She said she was invited to five pot-related parties over the weekend but declined to attend.

Ms. Laube said statistics show that teens on the East End are drinking and using drugs at a higher rate than in Suffolk County, New York State and the nation.

“We’re in wine country culture, and there’s a little bit of the ‘drinking village with a fishing problem’ syndrome,” she said. “And then there’s the tourism industry. You have young people working in places where they’re exposed to alcohol at a higher rate. The North Fork has a lot of points of access for underage drinking.”

Ms. Laube said that parents today tend to minimize the dangers of alcohol and marijuana use in their homes.
“You never say it’s OK if Sally shoplifts as long as I’m with her,” she said. “You never say it’s OK if Johnny snorts coke at our dining room table.”

She said boys begin drinking at an average age of 11, while girls begin at age 13. Recent research has proven that human brains aren’t fully formed until age 25, she added, stating that the longer parents keep their kids from drinking, the less likely their children are to become alcoholics.

She urged parents to host adult social events in their homes without serving alcohol and to wait up for their teenagers and actively engage them in conversation when they come home to determine if they’ve been drinking.

“You always hear ‘look for them to be irritable and tired’ to tell if kids have been using drugs,” Ms. Laube said. “They’re teenagers! They’re going to be irritable and tired … The number one turnoff for them is when parents are waiting up for them.”

“They’re children. They need to be supervised,” said Mr. Petretti. “Get to know their friends. Talk to their parents before sleepovers … If you’re not comfortable with it, say no. They’re adolescents. They’re going to get mad at you no matter what you do. You might as well say no.”

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04/23/2012 11:00 AM

BETH YOUNG FILE PHOTO | Mattituck superintendent James McKenna.

In light of the new property tax cap, Mattituck-Cutchogue School Superintendent James McKenna has agreed to halve his scheduled raises for the next two years.

Mr. McKenna’s contract, which was to expire in 2014, has been extended another two years. Although he was to receive yearly pay hikes of 3.5 percent for each of the next two years, on Thursday the school board approved a new four-year deal with raises of 1.75 percent in each of the next four years.

Mr. McKenna will also pay 20 percent of his medical insurance premiums, up from 15 percent.

Under the new contract, he will earn $187,754 in the 2012-13 school year. The following year he will earn $190,988, $194,222 in 2014-15 and $197,457 the following year.

“It is a privilege to continue to work for the betterment of the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District, and I think this is a contract that makes sense and is fair for everyone in this economic climate — the district, the community and myself,” said Mr. McKenna on Friday.

Although the details of the contract were not released until after Thursday’s board meeting, one resident in attendance questioned ever-increasing administration expenses. Farber Fenowski told the board the school could do without two separate principals and a superintendent.

“You need sergeants in the army, not generals,” he said. “It’s time to get tough because we’re running out of time. The lord is not happy.”

During the meeting the board adopted the $38 million budget that will go before voters May 15. It includes a spending increase of 1.72 percent above last year with a tax rate increase of 2.19 percent.

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03/18/11 3:56pm
03/18/2011 3:56 PM

BETH YOUNG PHOTO | McGann-Mercy lacrosse players practicing on the Aldrich Lane field on Thursday

McGann-Mercy High School can still hold lacrosse practices on the Mattituck Park District’s fields on Aldrich Lane in Laurel.

After nearly two hours of debate Thursday night, the Mattituck-Cutchogue school board agreed to support to the Riverhead school’s use of the fields, provided the park district requires McGann-Mercy to include Mattituck-Cutchogue School in its liability insurance policy. The three fields on Aldrich Lane are managed by the park district, but a third of the land belongs to the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District.

The Mattituck Soccer Club recently launched a campaign opposing McGann-Mercy’s use of the fields, citing concern that lacrosse players would damage the grass and could endanger soccer players using an adjacent field at the same time.

Mattituck Soccer Club coach Joe Vasile-Cozzo said he was concerned that Mattituck’s own lacrosse team is playing on an inferior field at Strawberry Fields. Former town councilman Dan Ross, who has also coached soccer, raised questions on permitting a private organization to use public fields. McGann-Mercy is a Catholic school run by the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
In response, Charlie Zaloom, chairman of the park district’s board of commissioners who voted in favor of the McGann-Mercy agreement with the majority in a park district vote last week, said the park district did not receive a request from Mattituck’s lacrosse team to use the fields this year.

The park district’s contract with the Mattituck-Cutchogue school district to manage the land has expired. Park district representatives said the fields are being maintained in accordance with the old agreement. Park commissioners and school board members agree that a new deal needs to be negotiated.

In related news, the district agreed Thursday to put its long-anticipated plan to replace its outdated track on hold due to the economic downturn.

“I’m the biggest proponent of [replacing the track], but I agree,” said School Board President Jerry Diffley.

Park district attorney Eileen Powers, whose daughter is a student at McGann-Mercy, said she found the reason the lacrosse team wants to use the Aldrich Lane fields ironic. The private school’s own lacrosse field is in the center of its track, which Mercy needs to use to host teams like Mattituck that don’t have tracks suitable for competition.

Good grades for school finances
During Thursday’s meeting, district auditor Frank Perry of the Patchogue firm Rizzi, Schwarz & Taraskas gave the school glowing grades for its financial management of purchase orders and payments.

The biannual claims audit showed that just 3.4 percent of the district’s purchase orders were issued after purchases were made. It also reports that 2.7 percent of requests for checks did not include compete information and that just .5 percent of checks issued by the district contained errors.

Mr. Perry said that many districts have some inconsistent purchase orders at the beginning of the school year, when they are racing to get the school ready for students to return.

“Mattituck is near the top,” he said. “The documentation that is in place is top drawer.”

“All in all it’s a pretty clean report,” said Mr. Diffley. “Mr. Perry said we’re better than Southold.”

Labs to be rebuilt
The school district will need to rebuild two chemistry labs after a sump beneath the floors began filling up with water and overflowing.

Board member Douglas Cooper, who serves as liaison to the school’s buildings and grounds committee, said the lab floors were graded incorrectly and that the warranty on the work has expired. The district is currently working up a project cost projection.
Mr. Cooper said that the sump only needs to be pumped out every two years. It was recently pumped but will eventually need to be replaced.

“It’s a summer project for one of these summers,” he said.

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10/27/10 7:01pm
10/27/2010 7:01 PM

Students in the Mattituck and Greenport school districts will take part in a survey on diversity issues next month as the schools seek to understand how to best address the needs of their increasingly diverse populations.
Mattituck-Cutchogue Superintendant Jim McKenna announced the plan at a Mattituck school board meeting last Thursday, Oct. 21, as he discussed his district’s attempts to answer charges last year that the school was not doing as much as it should to accommodate people with different backgrounds.
The survey will be conducted by the Stony Brook School of Social Welfare in conjunction with Southold Town, he said, adding that the Southold School District declined to participate.
Nearly 90 percent of Mattituck’s students are white, according to the district’s research as part of the diversity initiative, Mr. McKenna said. The limited racial mix heightens the need to be sensitive to students who may lack role models with backgrounds similar to their own, he added.
The district began posting job openings on multicultural websites in February, and plans to make it a priority to recruit candidates from organizations ranging from the Long Island Latino Teachers Association to the Long Island Black Educators Association to the Shinnecock Nation, the Urban League and the National Coalition of Black Women, according to Mr. McKenna.
“This is something we’re particularly proud of. We’ve had our eyes open to a bigger pool of candidates,” said Mr. McKenna, who added that the district had so far hired one African-American student teacher from Dowling College through the expanded candidate search.
The district also has revised its mission statement to reflect its goal of inclusion, he reported. The statement is slated to be adopted at the school board’s Nov. 18 meeting. Being circulated both in Spanish and in English, it describes the district as “dedicated to providing a welcoming and safe environment where diversity, interdependence and self-discovery are valued.” It outlines four goals, including nurturing passion for life and learning, fostering collaboration, creativity and critical thinking, encouraging a range of perspectives and promoting and practicing personal integrity, according to Mr. McKenna.
The statement adds that “as a result, students develop academic excellence, confidence and resiliency to face future challenges in order to contribute to and inspire positive change in the local and global community.”
The district, Mr. McKenna reported, is participating in several local and county programs to promote diversity, including Southold Town’s Anti-Bias Day and Suffolk County Unity Day. The district also sent several students to the county’s African-American Advisory Board College and Career Fair in Hauppauge earlier this fall.
District administrators have been taking part in workshops run by Roberta Richin, executive director of the Council for Prejudice Reduction.
“She kept looking at it as getting kids to take a look at the bigger picture,” said Mr. McKenna. “You are a part of the world and the world is a part of you … A world-class school demonstrates a vision of the world.”
Also on Thursday, the school board appointed music teacher Jacob Fowle and English teacher Anne Gilvarry to be advisers for a school musical this winter. The district has not held a musical production for more than a decade.
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