Weisz, president of the Guilderland Central School District
Board of Education, sits at the head of the board table, nervous—clicking
his pen, the occasional involuntary smirk—and he has reason
to be. A mob, standing-room only, has stormed the Guilderland
High School cafeteria for the board meeting. Roughly 500 students,
former students, parents, parents of former students, teachers,
and community members are here tonight to find out exactly
why two of the most popular teachers in the school, Matt Nelligan
and Ann-Marie McManus, are at the risk of being involuntarily
transferred to Farnsworth Middle School.
the first in what will be a series of three meetings the board
will hold over two frantic weeks to address the transfers.
rules on public comment and the rules are pretty specific,”
says Weisz. Fourteen people have signed up to speak during
the public comment period, but there are many others who want
to speak who haven’t signed up. “If you wanna discuss a personnel
matter, if you wanna discuss someone by name . . . we are
going to take that into executive session.”
are sitting on the floor, standing against the walls, packed
tight, chattering, anxious.
assure you we are all aware of your MySpace and your blogs,
and your e-mails, and your letters,” Weisz said: You don’t
all have to speak.
threatening to be a long evening.
up to the microphone is Julia Fitzgerald, the former high
school social studies department supervisor. “I am here tonight
to address the proposed involuntary transfer of two high school
social studies teachers . . .” Weisz cuts her off: “I believe
that is a personnel matter,” and the crowd explodes.
meeting! Public meeting! Public meeting!”
exercise our right to vote you off the board!”
to the floor is Guilderland senior Elijah Sharma.
speech!” students shout at him as he walks to the microphone.
Sharma is the co-founder of United for McManus and Nelligan
here to voice my concern about the forced transfer . . .”
and Weisz begins to gavel. “You’re out of order! You’re out
Sharma pleads, as Weisz elicits a vote from the board to go
into executive session. “Last week,” Sharma continues to read
from his speech, “which should have been the beginning of
a great summer, was darkened by the sad news that two teachers
who I hold in high esteem were being forced out of the high
school. As a member of the board of education, you know how
many individuals . . .” but he is drowned out by the crowd.
The board members are collecting their materials, readying
to leave a room filling with jeers and boos.
the board in retreat, the mob takes over the meeting. Nelligan
jumps up front to the roar of applause. “Anne-Marie and I
respect you,” he rallies. “We respect you for following what
we do, not just what we say. Tonight you changed politics
in the Guilderland school district.”
cheer, and crowd toward the microphone. A former student,
an Afghani-American Muslim, recalls how isolated and how frightened
she felt in the aftermath of Sept. 11., and how it was in
the classes of McManus and Nelligan where she finally felt
safe again as an American who wanted “to challenge the policy”
of her country. Another former student, now a teacher, drove
from Boston to support Nelligan, who, she says, used to drive
her mad. “He and I clashed viewpoints on every issue. He expected
me to constantly prove my point to him . . . and always pushed
me to stand up for my beliefs.” The president of the class
of ’08 jokes that he went into Nelligan’s class thinking he
was a Democrat and left knowing he was one.
were two teachers that could be considered father and mother
of all of us, it’d be them,” another former student says.
testimonials wear on for two hours.
takes the microphone and is overwhelmed by an ovation. “You
have impacted my life in the past seven years,” she tells
her students, “I can’t even begin to explain.”
trying hard not to lose it.
truly honored to have met you. I am truly moved by what you
are doing tonight. I feel that I have given my life and soul
to this place, and for what happened, there is no justification.
I feel that I am a good teacher.” The students loudly agree.
“And I feel that if that wasn’t true . . . you wouldn’t be
here. You’re standing here because of people you care about,
and trust me, trust me, we care just as much about you. We
don’t want to leave you. I don’t want to leave you. I am not
ready to go. I am not ready to say goodbye. I want to keep
teaching here. I don’t want to leave Guilderland High School.”
reason for the transfer of Nelligan and McManus has been widely
reported. According to the school district, it’s in an effort
to address a hostile cultural environment that allegedly dominates
the social studies department. The district claims that the
department, a tight-knit group of nearly 20 teachers, many
of whom have worked together for nearly a decade, is infused
with a “locker room” sensibility, rife with gay jokes, sexism,
and other juvenile behavior. The district’s official line
can be summed up through a prepared statement by Weisz.
2007, Weisz says, a teacher from the social studies department
brought concerns to the attention of the administration over
comments made by his colleagues. Although this initial discussion
with his supervisor lacked a substantive accusation of harassment,
it left the administration disconcerted. The decision was
made to “to bring in an expert to investigate what was actually
happening between and among all teachers in the high school,
starting with the social studies department.”
notes that the administration has since backed away from the
goal of surveying entire school. “It was a fishing expedition,”
he complains Nelligan, its only target the social studies
hired Dr. Michele Paludi, president of Human Resources Management
Solutions, to conduct a culture climate study. For the study,
Dr. Paludi interviewed members of the social studies department,
asking each six open-ended questions, such as, “Have you engaged
in or witnessed/noticed any type of insensitivity with respect
to sexual orientation, sex, race, age or disability in the
social studies department?” and “Has any of this behavior
impacted your work . . . your emotional and physical well-being
. . . your relationships at work?”
report, which has been released to the public in a highly
redacted version, found that, “comments were made by teachers
in the Social Studies Department that referenced gays, including
‘faggots’ and ‘queer,’” and that members of the department
were told they need to have “thick skin” to survive among
their sometimes caustic and combative colleagues.
Dr. Paludi reported, “several teachers in the Social Studies
department appear to band together against the Administration,
whom they perceive is always attacking the Social Studies
department.” These teachers, Paludi concluded, “would never
‘tell on’ colleagues.”
satisfied with the results of the study, according to McManus,
the administration sent out a memo in March seeking cooperation
from the social studies department for a second round of inquires;
the vast majority of the department replied back “absolutely
Guilderland Superintendent John McGuire sent a letter to the
complainant asking him to level his concerns in a formal complaint.
It was a move that many, including Nelligan and others within
the high school, saw as the administration laying-on pressure.
The complainant was a first-year teacher, “A kid,” Nelligan
openly discussed the letter he had had received from with
many of his colleagues in the department, even seeking advice
from Nelligan as how to move forward. Eventually, perhaps
feeling his job was at stake, Nelligan suggests, he acquiesced
and lodged the formal complaint.
that he was being used by the district,” Nelligan says. “I
felt sorry for him.”
end, the culture climate study, which was presented to the
district on Jan. 30, 2008, found that, while specific allegations
of sexual harassment could neither be confirmed nor denied,
“a hostile environment did exist in Guilderland High School
social studies department for a number of protected categories.”
of the recommendations made were that the sexual harassment
policy be reissued throughout the school, and that a discussion
be held with the teachers in the social studies department
about respectful behavior.
at the high school did report feeling alienated, isolated,
and in some cases intimidated by the climate of the social
studies department,” Weisz says. And although no allegation
of sexual harassment was found credible, the report concluded
that nothing could be confirmed or denied. “In my opinion,
the report exonerates no one.”
as Sharma is quick to point out, it doesn’t convict anyone,
either. Nor does it call for the extraordinary measure of
forcibly relocating two teachers best suited for the high-school
level curricula. A move that, he argues, is in inexcusably
debilitating to the educational environment of the high school.
taught predominantly high-level, college preparatory courses:
Advanced Placement U.S. Politics, an honors level public policy
course, even a Syracuse University Public Affairs 101 course,
co-curriculum through the University of Syracuse. He also
taught a foreign policy elective that he created. McManus,
likewise, taught a majority of the high-level social studies
courses. Both teachers have received multiple teaching awards,
pristine evaluations. The social studies department at Guilderland
is ranked No. 1 in the state for foreign policy, and its Regents
Exam scores are among the highest in the Capital Region.
took Nelligan’s foreign policy course. “It was a great class,”
the pensive teen with a wild shock of curly hair recalls.
“Mr. Nelligan thought students should know more about foreign
policy, that it is so important now after 9-11.” They held
a mock United Nations, to debate the Kyoto protocol. They
studied the genocide in Darfur, the Rwandan genocide. It had
the feel of an open forum where subjects as contentious as
the war in Iraq were up for discussion and debate. “Mr. Nelligan
and I don’t agree on anything politically, but we get along
very well. It would work because we would talk respectfully.
His whole thing was back your opinion up. Even if he didn’t
agree with you, as long as you had facts behind you, as long
as you know why you believe what you do, he just didn’t want
you just saying things. Even the kids who agreed with him,
he would ask them, ‘Why?’ It made me look into things. He
made you know your facts.”
Sharma, the facts behind the transfer of Nelligan and McManus
are simple: The administration disliked the politically outspoken
Nelligan, viewed him as an agitator, and wanted to punish
him. McManus, who was on maternity leave during the entire
climate study, was only included to lend the transfer a cloak
a view widely shared.
into that first school board meeting, Sharma says, he was
optimistic. He and his classmate McKenzie Bourque, who helped
him found United for McManus and Nelligan and notbackingdown.com,
had been circulating a successful online petition, urging
the board to intervene in the transfers. Nearly 500 people
had signed the petition in less than a week. There was a groundswell
of community support. Once the board saw how passionate the
community felt, then the members, as the representatives of
that community, would be obligated to vote to review the transfers.
This is how democracy works, after all—it’s a scenario that
could have come right out of Nelligan’s class.
the board walked out,” Sharma says.
meeting, the day after the fourth of July, the board went
immediately into executive session. All the major media was
there. Hundreds of spectators. The students pitched tents
in the parking lot, ordered Chinese food. Four hours passed,
and the board announced that it had reached no decision.
third meeting, which was held at 8 AM on a Monday, the board
finally voted 7-to-2 not to intervene in the superintendent’s
decision, and to allow the transfers to stand.
believes that the sexual harassment stuff is the reason for
these transfers, ya know,” says Nelligan, “I have a bridge
in Brooklyn I’d like to sell ya.”
doesn’t make sense.
is a loud, polemical scholar, unable to sit still, an obsessive
who works through an argument until it speaks some truth to
him. In his home office, images of Teddy Roosevelt, Richard
Nixon, and Gen. MacArthur peer from reprints of paintings
and photos and campaign posters. (For a states’ rights conservative,
he says, Nixon was a disappointment. “He didn’t deliver on
anything. He didn’t do what he said what he was going to do,
which is like most politicians.”) Perched side-by-side are
portraits of Winston Churchill and Michael Collins (insight
into this conservative Hibernian’s itch for a fight). Dressed
in a bright red “Viva la Reagan Revolution” T-shirt, Nelligan
literally clothes himself in his politics.
easy to see why kids would love this guy’s class; he obviously
loves the history and politics, lives the concepts of civic
action that he teaches—and that’s why, he says, he has run
afoul of the administration.
has been a long line of conflict over a wide range of my issues
between myself and the administration,” he says, which he
believes lies at the heart of his transfer.
the administration chose not to replace the retiring social
studies department’s supervisor, but instead place the department
under the charge of the English department’s supervisor, Nelligan
and others in the department complained. It was supposed to
be a cost-cutting measure, but Nelligan feared the outcome
of a department headed by a person who lacked the proper expertise.
the school administration handed over the directory of the
district’s parents’ addresses to the union, Nelligan and others
complained that it was a violation of privacy, and gave the
teachers union an unfair advantage in the upcoming school
board elections. And when the union donated campaign contributions
to the candidates running for the school board, Nelligan submitted
a letter to the editor to the Altamont Enterprise,
signed by a number of his colleagues in the social studies
department including McManus, decrying the unnecessary influence
of the union in district affairs. The teachers union and the
administration, he alleges, have long had a too-cozy relationship.
always corrupts politics. On a local level, several thousand
dollars is like a million dollars in a national election.
It totally corrupts the process and gives one side an unfair
advantage. There was a parent group that supported some candidates,
but they didn’t have any money to give. So the union’s action
in that election was decisive.”
the union money helped to elect to the board members who would,
eventually, vote along with Weisz and against Nelligan. The
board members who did not receive the union’s backing were
the two dissenting votes.
that, my issues with the administration were private, within
the school,” he says. He has been a vocal critic of the school
administration for pretty much the entire decade he has worked
at Guilderland High. He was behind a number of petitions,
served as the union president for three years, and has been
active in many school board elections. But the letter to the
editor was public. “It was like blowing the whistle on them.
I think that embarrassed them and they said, ‘That’s it. We’re
going to shut this person up.”
an assessment many of his colleagues told Metroland
that they agree with. One teacher, who spoke on the condition
of anonymity, was adamant that the administration had targeted
Nelligan for his political actions. “The sexual-harassment
stuff for me is not the issue,” the teacher says. “The administration
used a phony sexual harassment charge to remove teachers the
district didn’t like.”
situation, the teacher continues, the climate study, the sexual
harassment complaint, the transfers—they were all product
of an overly aggressive school administration.
when a young, first-year teacher spoke with his supervisor,
to tell her that he had heard comments that bothered him,
and that he planned to talk to the individual teachers directly.
He was nervous about the outcome of those conversations, however,
how they might affect the department, and just wanted to just
give the supervisor a heads-up. “Few people, if any, in the
department even knew he was gay before that.”
teacher had never signaled to anyone in the department that
he felt uncomfortable, or isolated, and joked around as much
as anyone else. “I heard the accuser make inappropriate comments,
too,” the anonymous teacher recalls. “He made jokes that others
might have been uncomfortable with.”
the administration pressed the young teacher to file a formal
complaint, he said “no.” He went to his colleagues in the
department, and confessed that he felt the situation was spiraling
out of control.
accuser told me,” Nelligan says, “he told me, ‘I feel really
bad. I know I should have talked to you.’ I know he felt like
crap about it.”
Nelligan says, he wonders how the teacher feels: Did he want
to see McManus put through this? Did he want to see Nelligan
go through the same? Could the accuser have guessed that he
would be “removed for budgetary reasons” at the end of the
end, did the district really care about [the accuser] or did
they just care about making an attack on the social studies
department?” asks the anonymous social studies teacher. “He
filed sexual harassment charges, and then he lost his job.
I sympathize with the accuser, with the teachers, but I don’t
sympathize with the administration. They are creating an environment
that is hostile. I don’t always agree with Nelligan or everything
he says, but I do think that the administration has moved
in a way that will damage the department, the district, and
and Bourque have even launched another petition demanding
that Superintendent McGuire resign his position. They are
planning a rock-the-vote fundraiser to sway the outcome of
the upcoming May school board election, to hold accountable
certain school board members “responsible for their poor decision
to vote off the school board president,” Bourque says. “The
senior high school students, they will be 18, so we want to
get them register them to vote.”
figures that won’t make them any friends in the administration.
be a huge flex of our muscle!” Sharma enthuses, and Bourque
agrees—but then, perhaps remembering how their first show
of civic muscle failed, adds: “The worst part is that we are
getting cynical at such a young age.”