NISKAYUNA -- Niskayuna teachers, teaching assistants and support staff Tuesday night warned the school board about low staff morale, unresponsive administrators and unaddressed safety issues, arguing the district was “in crisis.”
Comments at the regular school board meeting laid bare troubled labor relations within the district, where negotiations over a new teachers' contract recently dragged months past the prior contract's expiration and drew a crowd of frustrated teachers to multiple board meetings.
But the comments Tuesday expressed concerns that went past contract negotiations into a litany of concerns teachers and staff said they had expressed to administrators but in many instances received little or no response.
“Never have I seen such a dismal atmosphere in my 25 years of teaching in this district,” said Mary Eads, a high school social studies teacher and president of the teachers union. “I am disgusted with the way teachers and other employees are being treated.”
The presidents of five different district bargaining units – the teachers association, the nurses group, the district employees association, clerks and assistants, and education support staff – addressed the school board. Dozens of staff turned out in support, forcing the public comments section of the meeting out of the board's conference room and into the Van Antwerp auditorium to make space.
The bargaining unit heads outlined concerns that centered on staff morale and communication with district administrators. Carol Ann Townsend, president of the support personnel association, said over two dozen teacher assistants have left the school district this year alone, resigning over low pay and work conditions. She pointed out that the starting wages for teacher assistants in Niskayuna are lower than “the fast food restaurant down the street.” Many of the district's teacher assistants have to seek other work to cover their costs, she said.
“We are in the classroom everyday with your children, watching them grow and helping them succeed, and many of our members have to work two jobs because they cannot afford to make ends meet,” Townsend said.
Townsend said the turnover was unprecedented and driven in part by how teacher assistants feel they are treated by the district.
“Sometimes these opportunities involve more money, but almost all happen because our members simply want to be treated with respect and dignity,” Townsend said of teacher assistants who have left.
The Niskayuna Education Support Personnel Association, which represents teacher assistants, bus monitors and other staff, has recently started negotiations with district officials for an updated contract.
Carol Werblin, head of the district's nurses group, told the school board nurses were concerned the district was replacing registered nurses with licensed practical nurses, a lower level of training and certification than nurse practitioners.
“We advocated strongly against this,” she said. “We are hopeful the district has listened to our voice and reason.”
She also said nurses had repeatedly requested a discussion about establishing a policy to use Narcan for treating drug overdoses. “We have received no response,” she said of district administrators.
Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr., who jotted down notes as some employees railed against his leadership Tuesday night, did not address the staff concerns directly at the meeting, but in an interview Wednesday he acknowledged the district has a staff morale problem to address.
“Clearly, the people in the room last night certainly feel there is a crisis, and perception is reality,” Tangorra said. “It's clear to me that people feel they are not being heard.”
He said morale is “the responsibility of every member of the organization” and called on all district staff to help improve the situation.
Tangorra rebutted some of the claims made during the meeting and said hard feelings from contract negotiations should be left behind after the contract has been finalized. Responding to the suggestion that internal district committees limited teacher participation “by design,” Tangorra said all staff and community members are invited to participate in a litany of committees and subcommittees working on various district initiatives.
He said he planned to develop new ways for people to share issues.
“Maybe I need to be a little more available for communication,” Tangorra said, adding that he was surprised by what was expressed at Tuesday's meeting. “Had I known something like this was cooking, I would have addressed it long ago.”
John Genter, president of the Niskayuna School District Employees Association, which represents transportation staff, custodians, kitchen workers and maintenance staff, on Tuesday highlighted a March letter he shared with Tangorra and the school board – which he said received no response.
The March letter outlined a litany of safety concerns the district employees shared, ranging from hazards caused by parents picking up and dropping off students to the frequency of grass mowing at district properties.
“This situation is at best lawsuits waiting to happen,” Genter wrote in the letter of custodians directing traffic without training. After listing a concern about the physical condition of district parking lots and roads, Genter wrote that “documented complaints and no action to properly solve this issue is negligence.”
(Tangorra said district leadership was addressing many of the concerns outlined in the letter but that he did not “formally” respond to every concern cited in Genter's letter.)
Other concerns enumerated in the letter included: “constant communication problems” with the radio system used by bus drivers; cars parked in fire lanes; tree branches blocking surveillance cameras; custodians tasked with directing traffic despite no training to do so; and holes in the roof of the district's Hillside Avenue transportation center.
School Board President Jack Calareso on Wednesday expressed confidence in Tangorra's leadership but said it was important to address the communication concerns raised at Tuesday's meeting.
“I feel like there is a lot of communication going on, but those folks last night seem to feel whatever that communication is is not effective, so we as a district need to deal with it,” he said.
Calareso also called on all staff members to work on improving the district and how its staff collaborates with its leadership. He said improving staff morale will require everyone to work together.
“Whether it is one or 101 [staff members] that have the concern, we need to communicate with them and try to find a way to move forward together,” Calareso said. “I hope the people that were there can get beyond the crisis they felt important to report and work with the team in place to address it.”