My children had the chance to attend school in Schenectady until recently moving back to Wisconsin. Overall, it was the experience of a lifetime with the most amazing teachers ever.
Still, I leave with concerns for the buildings and grounds department employees and the tough working conditions they endured for years, for how fast Superintendent Eric Ely’s attitude changed toward people when they start asking questions, for how the educational outcomes can vary so widely for different demographic groups of students and finally for how unfair the process is in New York for determining whether a school should be labeled as “persistently dangerous.”
One of the most frustrating things I have faced as a parent in the Schenectady school district this year is having the high school labeled as “persistently dangerous” when the staff and teachers are there every day, caring about each of the students. The end of the school year is getting closer, but the New York State Department of Education has still not removed the label, even though discipline incidents are down from previous years.
The commissioner of education has still not visited the only “persistently dangerous” upstate public high school or even taken five minutes to call the high school administration and see how things are going. Schenectady High School is the only “persistently dangerous” school in Regent Dawson’s territory, but he also has not toured the school to evaluate student safety.
After reading the recent articles regarding Steven Raucci, the Schenectady school district’s buildings and grounds chief who has been jailed and charged with arson and terrorism, I realized maybe it is not Schenectady High School that should have been labeled dangerous but instead the buildings and grounds department.
The state Education Department should do the right thing for Schenectady and re-evaluate the “persistently dangerous” label at the high school while working with the independent investigator to be hired by the Schenectady district and conduct an outside review of how dangerous the working environment was for some staff members, year after year, with no one stepping in to help.
While the Schenectady High kids go into a nurturing environment every day, where people genuinely care about them, the buildings and grounds staff members went to work for years and were allegedly terrorized repeatedly by their supervisor.
The Schenectady High School students and parents have a safe complaint process that can be followed, while the buildings and grounds staff seemed to have had no one to turn to within the district chain of command to safely file a complaint.
Gary Comley, the associate superintendent at the high school, takes the time to listen to students and parents and work with them (even parents like me, who asked questions all the time), while the superintendent and human resources director allegedly ignored the needs of the buildings and grounds employees and their desire for a safer work environment.
Sexual harassment of any sort is not tolerated at the high school, while in the buildings and grounds department, sexual harassment was alleged to be a regular occurrence, with at least one staff member receiving an inappropriate memo from Mr. Raucci, employees reporting being groped and allegations of sexual harassment being a key part of a former employee’s federal multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the district.
Passing the buck
At the high school, Mr. Comley, the house principals and teachers proactively interact with students to identify any potential problems and to be a visible part of the school community. Unfortunately, upper-level administration in the district do not seem to want to know what is going on within the buildings and grounds department and instead pass the buck or claim ignorance of what has happened.
If a kid is having problems at the high school, a high school staff member will know and be there to help out. But a department head can allegedly bring a bomb onto school grounds and intimidate other employees and no one in upper-level administration has any idea.
There should also be an accounting from the Civil Service Employees Association and an outside investigation to explain how a department manager could ever be the union’s local president. How can such a huge conflict of interest be allowed to occur? Will the buildings and grounds department employees receive a refund for the years of dues they paid while not having a neutral union president and a complaint process available? Will the union or school district ever be able to make these employees feel safe at work or home again?
The Schenectady school district teachers and other staff members have invested their careers in the school district and deserve the support of upper-level administrators, their unions, the school board and the community. No employee of any organization should ever face the extreme working conditions that the buildings and grounds department workers are alleged to have dealt with.
We need individuals beyond the Schenectady school district level to step in and deal with the mess upper-level administrators ignored for years.
When will the clean-up process start?
Sandra McAnany lives in Schenectady. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.