Niskayuna school board approves 5-year superintendent contract extension

Opposition expressed before vote
Joe Skanurski addresses the Niskayuna school board at Van Antwerp Middle School Tuesday.
Joe Skanurski addresses the Niskayuna school board at Van Antwerp Middle School Tuesday.

Categories: News, Saratoga County, Schenectady County

NISKAYUNA — The Niskayuna school board on Tuesday approved a five-year extension to Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr.’s contract — over the objections of some staff and residents.

The extension, which the board unanimously adopted at its regular board meeting, raises Tangorra’s base salary to $197,370 beginning July 1 and guarantees annual salary increases of at least 2 percent through July 2023. Tangorra’s base salary would reach nearly $215,000 for the 2023-2024 school year, under the contract.

But some district staff and community residents spoke out against the contract extension at Tuesday’s meeting, pointing out that just three weeks ago district staff had called Tangorra’s leadership into question and raised issues about internal communication and a lack of response to staff concerns.

Mary Eads, a high school social studies teacher and president of the Niskayuna Teachers Association, on Tuesday asked the board to table the contract extension until more could be done to address the staff concerns.

Speakers at Tuesday’s meeting also complained that the district first posted notice of the contract extension on the Friday before a holiday weekend and questioned why the extension covered five years instead of a shorter period. Some of the speakers also questioned why Tangorra doesn’t live within the district -– a requirement that was included in Tangorra’s first contract but removed from a subsequent update.

“It’s outrageous and mind-boggling that this is happening,” said Sue Penny, a longtime Niskayuna resident and former teacher and union president in the district, referring to the timing of the extension so soon after the airing of staff complaints. “I’m very disappointed in this board.”

Earlier this month, leaders of all bargaining units in the district – groups that represent the districts teachers, support staff, maintenance workers, nurses, bus drivers and others – warned the board about a morale crisis among staff. The union leaders’ comments laid bare troubled labor relations within the district as they painted a picture of poor communication between district staff and administrators and staff concerns that they say were never addressed.

“Never have I seen such a dismal atmosphere in my 25 years of teaching in this district,” Eads said at the May 7 meeting. “I am disgusted with the way teachers and other employees are being treated.”

Eads and other teachers were frustrated that negotiations over their contract had dragged on months after the teacher association’s prior contract had expired; they worried the same would happen to the teachers assistants, whose contract is currently under negotiation.

Tanogorra did have his supporters at Tuesday’s meeting. Though the minority of speakers, some parents and residents applauded Tangorra’s work with community committees and his willingness to listen to public criticism and take personal responsibility – as when he listened to public concerns after an hourslong lockdown at the high school caused widespread student and parent angst. Student board representatives also thanked Tangorra for his engagement with students.

“Even when we have not always seen eye to eye, I feel Dr. Tangorra has given me the perspective and methodology about how he reached a decision and why,” said Matt Cutler, a Niskayuna parent and rabbi at Congregation Gates of Heaven.

Despite the staff and resident concerns, the board vested its trust in Tangorra to lead the district over the coming years. In a post published on the district website Friday, the board’s intention to extend the contract was described as prioritizing “stability in leadership, a strong focus on students, a forward-looking academic program and stewardship of the district’s capital assets and taxpayer dollars.”

“Stability in the role of our chief executive is critical as we plan a major capital project and focus on providing a top-quality academic program in a changing world,” Board President Jack Calareso said in a statement included in the post and similar to one he made at the board meeting.

The post highlighted Tangorra’s work in the district developing a new strategic plan, limiting the district’s average tax levy increase to less than 2 percent, negotiating contracts with four of five bargaining units and establishing a handful of advisory groups studying everything from school start times to athletic partnerships.

At the meeting, board members reiterated that view and argued a long-term contract would provide stability as the district embarks on ambitious initiatives.

“I’m fully confident in Dr. Tangorra’s leadership,” board member Jennifer Zhao said. “Is he perfect? No … but nobody’s perfect, and I think he is the right person to lead Niskayuna.”

The district in recent years has increasingly focused on equity issues, with Tangorra acknowledging publicly this school year that students of color in Niskayuna experience the district’s academic program in sometimes less positive ways than their classmates. And Tangorra has helped lead a partnership with a Chinese-based private school.

Tangorra, who had been working as a top official at the state Education Department, was hired by the Niskayuna school board in April 2015, starting his tenure that June at a salary of $186,000. The board in March 2017 approved a new contract for Tangorra, setting his salary for the 2017-2018 school year at $188,790 and promising annual raises of 1.5 percent and setting a $3,000 bonus if the board agreed Tangorra met or exceeded certain performance goals. When the contract was updated in 2017, the board removed a requirement that Tangorra take up residence within the school district.

The school board and district officials have a busy agenda in the coming months and years as the district looks to put a major capital project up for resident approval in December 2020. That project may also be paired with a reconfiguration of how grades are distributed across school buildings, potentially sparking changes to what schools students go to in which grades – projects that Tangorra was granted the right to oversee with his new contract.  

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