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Niskayuna High School principal cleared of alleged conflict of interest

Niskayuna High School principal cleared of alleged conflict of interest

After six months of internal review by school district officials and attorneys, Niskayuna High Schoo
Niskayuna High School principal cleared of alleged conflict of interest
Niskayuna High School Principal John Rickert talks before the School Board Meeting at Van Antwerp Middle School Tuesday, May 26, 2015.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

After six months of internal review by school district officials and attorneys, Niskayuna High School Principal John Rickert had been declared free of any conflict of interest with his separate career as an agent for professional athletes.

A report to that effect was released at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, but unlike previous meetings, the matter drew little public interest — perhaps because the report hadn’t been publicized beforehand.

Speaking to The Gazette at the meeting, Rickert said he considers the matter closed and said he is not unhappy about it having been raised so contentiously for so long. He added that the scrutiny did nothing to change his day-to-day activities or his attitude toward the district.

“To me, nothing’s really changed,” he said. “I’m still as enthusiastic as ever about education.”

The matter came to a head in November, when Rickert’s second career — which he had never concealed — was denounced by some critics as a detriment to the school. When interim Superintendent John Yagielski solicited confidential comments from the public regarding the matter, he had no idea what he was getting into.

In hindsight, it seems obvious. After an Internet post by a local author brought the issue to the fore, the district held a sort of open executive session in November at which school board members and the district’s lawyer, Hank Sobota, questioned Rickert about his outside employment. Community members filled the Van Antwerp Middle School auditorium

Public comments were not invited at the gathering, which the public was allowed to attend only because Rickert agreed to allow his personnel matter to be discussed publicly. Typically, such issues are discussed in private among the board.

Instead of public comment, Yagielski invited feedback from the public in writing. He initially promised to compile the comments and issue a final report no later than January. Now, just a few days before his tenure with the district ends, his findings have finally been released.

“Frankly, it took considerably more time than I had anticipated when I made the statement to have a summary prepared by no later than January,” Yagielski noted in the summary.

That might have something to do with the 19 folders of news articles and tweets related to various activities of Rickert’s. And that was just one submission.

After combing through the information alongside Sobota, Yagielski’s report indicates accusations of outside work taking place during the school day could not be proven.

“Our review of the materials included in the confidential submissions, coupled with a careful review of the District’s attendance and other records, did not yield clear evidence of any specific incidents whereby [Rickert] was conducting sports agency business in clear interference with his responsibilities as the high school principal,” the report reads.

It also cautioned that media reports about events such as athlete signings shouldn’t be treated as proof of any wrongdoing.

Thus far, Rickert has made considerable effort beyond what his contract requires to provide transparency and reduce any appearance of conflict. In 2013, he agreed to stop participating in a radio show that was taped outside of school hours but aired during the school day. He also agreed to prevent his employees from sending news releases during school hours.

Most recently, he voluntarily filed a report of his outside business relationships and earnings with the Office of the Superintendent on May 17.

Now, Rickert said, he hopes the issue will be put to bed once and for all.

“I’ve gone as far as I can go,” he told The Gazette. “I think we’ve reached closure.”

He said he was willing to voluntarily participate in the public executive session in November and disclose his earnings to try to help Yagielski foster transparency and communication in the district. He also hoped to answer questions and move on from rumors and gossip about his involvement in the sports world.

He has been principal since 2001 and a sports agent since 2003.

“It was time-consuming, but at the same time, you hope there’s an end,” he said.

Rickert added that few people have asked him about his outside employment since the November meeting.

State law does not prohibit school employees from having outside employment. The school district’s policy cautions against creating conflicts of interest and, in addition, that the burden of proof of any conflicts rests with the district. Changing the language would require negotiations with the teacher’s union.

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