In 2010, Schenectady schools superintendent left under a cloud; a decade later, so does another

Larry Spring's tenure has largely been shaped by uneven progress
Larry Spring is shown speaking at the state Capitol in 2016. Inset, Eric Ely in 2010.
Larry Spring is shown speaking at the state Capitol in 2016. Inset, Eric Ely in 2010.

In July 2008, then-Schenectady Schools Superintendent Eric Ely emailed Steven Raucci, the one-time district facilities manager who terrorized other district staff, to give Raucci a “heads up” he was the target of a criminal investigation.

The email message didn’t emerge publicly until nearly two years later, when during Raucci’s month-long trial on charges of terrorism and arson, prosecutors used the emails in outlining a yearslong investigation into Raucci’s conduct.

“Just a heads up on these allegations,” Ely wrote to Raucci, within minutes relaying a message he received from a school attorney that Raucci faced a multi-county investigation. “We need to talk about taking a head on approach pretty soon,” the former superintendent advised.

The new evidence raised the heat on the already embattled superintendent and within days board members – and soon after, school board candidates – called for Ely’s ouster.

“I’m extremely disheartened and very concerned about the things being revealed, and I think it’s time that we start to look to turn around the district,” then-School Board President Maxine Brisport said on March 20, 2010, the day after the troubling testimony emerged. “That may mean making some drastic changes at various levels of the school district.”

By the end of June, Ely was out of the job – albeit with an exit package worth over $100,000.

The district hired former Shenendehowa Superintendent John Yagielski, who was tasked with a mission to rebuild trust with the community, stabilize deep budget challenges, deal with issues in district policies and manage district business while board members could search for a new leader.

Yagielski’s stint lasted two years, but after an extensive search for a new superintendent, the school board landed on its new leader: Laurence Spring, who at the time was superintendent of the Cortland Enlarged School District, about 25 miles northeast of Ithaca.

“I think he will bring a fresh new approach to the district,” Cathy Lewis, who was the school board president at the time and has served on the board throughout Spring’s tenure, said of Spring when his hiring was announced.

At the time, board members, including Lewis, Ann Reilly and Andy Chestnut, who were elected in the aftermath of the Ely scandal and have served on the board during Spring’s tenure, lauded Spring’s emphasis on analyzing data – both good and bad – and his focus on student equity.

“We should be leveling the playing field to give all kids an equal start,” Spring, now 50, said when his appointment was announced in February 2012. “If I was not fighting that battle, I think I would have a hard time sitting still.”

He took over as superintendent in June 2012, moving to town with his wife and two school-age children. And after a run of nearly eight years leading the district – a run that included increased state funding, improved graduation rates and praise from far corners of the state – Spring abruptly resigned this week in a terse letter that gave no explanation for his departure, which comes with well over a year remaining on his contract. The superintendent appointed as the district emerged from a cloud of scandal resigned under a cloud of secrecy and unanswered questions.

The resignation took many in the community by surprise, coming amid an unprecedented national health crisis and a difficult transition to remote learning for students and teachers alike. The school closures will last until at least April 15 and potentially far longer, and districts are still expected to develop budgets despite uncertainty around a public vote scheduled for May.

The board met Wednesday, its first virtual meeting since the closures took hold, moving quickly through an agenda with no clues of what was to drop as the board finished its business. After commencing with a string of quick votes, including to accept the donation of a viola from an anonymous Saratoga Springs high school student, Board President John Foley moved to waive the “48-hour rule,” so the board could act on a motion not included in the posted agenda.

The board approved the motion before they could act on another: accept Spring’s resignation. The board then appointed Aaron Bochniak, district director of planning and accountability, as acting superintendent. 

In a short interview after the school board accepted his resignation letter Wednesday night, Spring said “for me the timing is right” and that he planned to work on his doctoral dissertation. Many people said the timing couldn’t be worse. 

Spring has been pursuing a doctorate of education at Vanderbilt University since he arrived in Schenectady, according to a background bio posted on the district website. A similar background web page from his days running the Cortland school district said he was pursuing the degree while he was there too. Spring earned a bachelor’s degree in history from SUNY Geneseo and a master’s degree in education leadership from the University of Rochester, according to his bio.

Spring, who once joked he would outlast every current member of the school board by the time his tenure leading the district ended, resigned with a separation agreement that included vows of secrecy for both he and the school board to keep in perpetuity. Those vows include promises the board and its members would not disparage Spring and that Spring would not disparage the district, vows that so far both sides have kept.

The separation agreement between Spring and the school board suspends his salary as of March 25 but allows him to use up his paid personal and vacation time through late April, at which point his resignation will be final. The district will still provide his health insurance through June.

Spring was set to make nearly $270,000 in total compensation this school year, among the highest in the Capital Region; his salary this year of $205,600 was up over 13 percent from the $181,200 in salary he made upon his 2012 arrival. 

Board members — all of whom are elected by district taxpayers — have refused to explain the sudden departure, and some members didn’t respond to the Gazette’s request for comment following the resignation.

“Anything that I know is a personnel matter,” Board President John Foley said Friday. “The document speaks for itself,” he said when asked why it was necessary to include the non-disparagement clause in the separation agreement.

Steps forward and steps backward

Spring’s tenure has largely been shaped by uneven progress. The district reached its highest graduation rate in over a decade last year, nearly reaching 70 percent as a district last summer. But the beginning of the school year flashed red with warning signs as data on student attendance and behavior showed major issues, especially at the high school.

Over the years, Spring has been a leading voice in the region advocating for Schenectady’s “fair share” of state funding, making the case that districts that serve low-income students and students of color are disproportionately impacted funding shortfalls under the state’s key school funding formula.

The district has seen among the largest funding increases in the region in recent years, helping to invest in new programs and maintain a local tax levy that has been effectively held flat, if not reduced slightly, in recent years.

“Certainly history shows that from a financial perspective some of the under-funding situation has been improved upon,” board member Andy Chestnut said Thursday. “Although it’s still pretty serious.”

After years of carrying out budget cuts that resulted from the long-term fallout of the Great Recession, in recent years Spring has overseen major investments in the district, focusing on different approaches to identifying and supporting students. Major new programs have included: diversion that lets students opt for therapy instead of extended suspension, a so-called “general education continuum” that connects struggling students with a spectrum of services similar to how special education works and a summer enrichment program that brings students to school for 10-hour days during part of the summer months.

“I’m proud of the work we did and I wish Schenectady well, and plenty of success going forward,” Spring said by email Friday, responding to a message left on a personal cell phone.

But Spring has had his share of detractors over the years, with parents, teachers and community members raising concerns about school safety and stability and the efficacy of district communications with families.

During a school meeting in January, students’ parents and family members packed the room to voice concerns over school safety. Multiple parents at the meeting said their kids come home and share accounts of fights on a regular basis, and they urged the school board and district leaders to prioritize student safety above all others. “We need to stop focusing on other issues right now, because this is the most serious issue,” one parent said of the safety concerns.

At a similarly-packed school board meeting in 2017, over a hundred teachers turned up to air grievances about the learning and teaching environment in Schenectady schools. They argued the discipline procedures established by administrators had fostered a chaotic atmosphere, where students misbehaved with no consequences and disrespected teachers. They called for more hall monitors and behavioral specialists and options for students not meeting the expectations of traditional classes.

“The current state of affairs is a disgrace and disservice to the citizens of Schenectady, especially to parents,” one of the teachers said at the meeting.

After the 2017 meeting, Spring defended policies teachers had called into question – like promoting students from one grade to the next despite low academic performance – and made the case that he agreed with many of their concerns. The district needed more funding to implement more programs for students, he said.

Throughout his tenure, Spring often defended still-lagging indicators or regression in test scores or graduation rates by pointing to the tremendous challenges Schenectady students and teachers face. He argued consistently that the district’s students needed more services, more opportunities, more teachers and academic specialists – and more money to support that work.

“What is in place is moving toward addressing those concerns,” Spring said following that meeting with the frustrated teachers. “I don’t think it is enough, we need more.”

As the district transitioned its leadership, Bochniak assured district staff that “the goals, work and direction of our district remains the same” in a message he sent out at the close of his first day as acting superintendent. 

But in the hours immediately following Spring’s departure, some board members appeared surprised by the speed with which the resignation unfolded and unsure what exactly was to come next. 

“This has all happened so quickly, we haven’t been able to get a plan in place,” board member Katherine Stephens said when reached following Spring’s resignation. “Personally, my head is spinning, everything that is going on, so I really can’t say anything about what’s next for the district.” 

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