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Civic muscle: High schoolers Elijah Sharma and McKenzie Bourque have spearheaded much of the student effort to protest the transfer of two of their favorite teachers.

Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

Learning The Hard Way

For the students of Guilderland High School, the transfer of two beloved teachers was a call to flex their civic muscle

By Chet Hardin

Richard 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.

It is the first in what will be a series of three meetings the board will hold over two frantic weeks to address the transfers.

“We have 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.”

Students are sitting on the floor, standing against the walls, packed tight, chattering, anxious.

“I can 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.

It is threatening to be a long evening.

First 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.

“Public meeting! Public meeting! Public meeting!”

“Let’s exercise our right to vote you off the board!”

Next to the floor is Guilderland senior Elijah Sharma.

“Speech, speech!” students shout at him as he walks to the microphone. Sharma is the co-founder of United for McManus and Nelligan and notbackdown.com.

“I am here to voice my concern about the forced transfer . . .” and Weisz begins to gavel. “You’re out of order! You’re out of order!”

“Wait,” 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.

With 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.”

Students 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.

“If there were two teachers that could be considered father and mother of all of us, it’d be them,” another former student says.

Similar testimonials wear on for two hours.

McManus 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.”

She is trying hard not to lose it.

“I am 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.”

The official 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.

In December 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.”

(Nelligan 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 department.)

The district 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?”

The investigation’s 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.

“Furthermore,” 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.”

Not completely 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 not.”

Next, 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 says.

The accuser 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.

“I felt that he was being used by the district,” Nelligan says. “I felt sorry for him.”

In the 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.”

Two 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.

“Teachers 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.”

But, 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.

Nelligan 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.

Sharma 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.”

And for 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 of “credibility.”

It is a view widely shared.

Going 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.

“But the board walked out,” Sharma says.

The second 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.

At the 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.

“If anyone 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.”

It just doesn’t make sense.

Nelligan 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.

It’s 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.

“There 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.

When 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.

When 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.

“Money 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.”

Notably, 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.

Telling, Nelligan suggests.

“Before 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.”

It is 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.”

The entire situation, the teacher continues, the climate study, the sexual harassment complaint, the transfers—they were all product of an overly aggressive school administration.

It began 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.”

The young 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.”

When 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.

“The 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.”

Now, 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 school year?

“In 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 the school.”

Sharma 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 making.”

“We want 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.”

The duo figures that won’t make them any friends in the administration.

“It would 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.”

chardin@metroland.net


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