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Schenectady teachers urge board to keep Comley

Schenectady teachers urge board to keep Comley

Teachers showed up in force Wednesday to tell the city school board that it’s making a terrible d

Teachers showed up in force Wednesday to tell the city school board that it’s making a terrible decision about the future of the high school.

The board plans to replace Associate Superintendent Gary Comley with Gregory Fields, a house principal. Fields will oversee the massive restructuring of the high school this fall.

But Comley said he wants to stay to shepherd the restructuring project he helped plan.

Special education teacher Pamela Russell presented a petition signed by 204 teachers and staff at the high school. In an indication of how strongly Comley is supported by his teachers, even those who have not yet been granted tenure signed the petition.

Normally teachers at the district do not publicly criticize their employer. Even tenured teachers said they feared they would be transferred to the worst jobs as retribution for their signatures — but still they signed.

They said they went public because of the seriousness of what they feel is the board’s mistake.

“If someone new comes in, next year is going to be chaos,” Russell said. “The high school is preparing for an important transitional phase …. it requires continuity and consistency.”

Biology teacher Rebekah Humphrey-Sewell stressed that the petition should not be seen as a criticism of Gregory Fields, who has been chosen to succeed Comley.

“This is no slight on Mr. Fields. It doesn’t matter who they were replacing Gary with, we would be unhappy,” she said.

Russell and Humphrey-Sewell personally appealed to several board members after the meeting, trying to convince them to change their minds.

Russell said other administrators “sit in the office” rather than venturing into the high school halls.

“He has been the first person that has been visible,” she said. “He has made such an impact.”

Some board members did not seem convinced.

“I understand change sometimes is difficult but I hope we will embrace the change and move forward,” said board President Maxine Brisport.

Board member Diane Herrmann added, “We need to be forward-looking at this point.”

But other board members said they were willing to keep Comley and did not do so because of a possible miscommunication during an executive session.

The issues revolve around the district’s retirement incentive. Those who retire the year they turn 55 are given one-third of their salary. It is not offered to those who wait even one extra year.

Comley was paid $137,950 last year, meaning he was eligible for a nearly $46,000 retirement incentive. Last fall, Comley asked the board to defer his incentive so he could help restructure the high school. He said he never heard back from the board.

But board member Gary Farkas said Superintendent Eric Ely “mentioned” the request at the very end of an executive session.

“He said there’s no rush, we’ll talk about it at the next meeting. Gary retired the next day,” Farkas said.

Comley said he submitted his retirement papers because he hadn’t heard about the incentive request. Board members asked him to reconsider, so he rescinded his retirement, he said.

But then he asked again to defer the incentive for a year. This time, he said, the board voted no.

Board members said they did not recall such a vote.

“There was no such proposal before the board,” Jeff Janiszewski said, adding that he would have voted in favor of it.

Brisport said the board voted in executive session. She refused to elaborate.

Russell said the process was highly flawed.

“I am so livid,” she said. “The board has gone through such a year of mismanagement.”

Humphrey-Sewell agreed.

“When you have a person like Gary Comley, you don’t offer him an incentive to go. You should be offering an incentive to stay,” she said.

Comley said he did not expect the board to change its decision.

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