Critics see dysfunction and unethical conduct
By Jeff Simms
While current Beacon City Schools Superintendent Barbara Walkley is embroiled in controversy as many parents call for her dismissal, the school system’s issues date back much further than just her tenure.
It’s difficult to trace the issues to any one person or incident, but since longtime Superintendent Vito DiCesare retired in 2006, the Beacon district has been marked by frequent turnover and, many have said, significant dysfunction.
“The public perception is that something is off, that there’s just general corruption, but we don’t know exactly why it’s such a hard district to work in,” said Clarice Allee, the president of the South Avenue Elementary PTA.
The Beacon City School District encompasses six schools: South Avenue, Sargent, Glenham and J.V. Forrestal elementaries, Rombout Middle School and Beacon High School. According to the district website, it covers the city of Beacon, plus parts of Fishkill and Wappingers, with an enrollment of 3,400 students.
The list of superintendents who came after DiCesare is long, although many of their terms were not. Jean Parr took over the post in 2006; Fern Aefsky followed in 2008. Harvey Hilburgh was named interim superintendent in 2011, after Aefsky’s departure. Raymond Bandlow took over in November 2011 and then resigned in July 2012, after which Hilburgh served once again as an interim. Paul Dorward was hired in 2013; he too left just over a year later, which led to Walkley being named the interim superintendent.
Prior to her appointment, Walkley — who was hired permanently in February 2015 — had twice served as the district’s assistant superintendent. [Update: On Thursday, Jan. 21, the board announced that Walkley had resigned.]
“If you want to be a successful team, you can’t keep changing the coach,” said John Burns, a Rombout social studies teacher and president of the Beacon Teachers Association (BTA). “It’s demoralizing.”
The BTA has also been a source of controversy. A petition filed with the New York state Department of Education by Beacon parent Melissa Rutkoske alleges that Burns’ predecessor, Kimberly Pilla, has been engaged in an inappropriate relationship with Walkley, compromising the superintendent’s impartiality. Pilla stepped down from her position as BTA president in August 2015, and neither she nor Walkley responded this week to requests for comment from The Paper.
On January 11, nearly 400 parents attended what was scheduled to be a meeting of the Board of Education. With only three out of nine board members present, the meeting was canceled within minutes of its 7 p.m. start time.
Parents, however, continued filing into the school’s auditorium and used the opportunity to speak out publicly, condemning the school board and calling for Walkley to be dismissed.
Three nights later, on Jan.14, the board met again in the Beacon High School cafeteria. Although the meeting was advertised to include only an executive session that was closed to the public, around 75 parents still attended, standing in silent protest and holding signs with messages like “Standing up for kids,” “Transparency,” and “We are not going away.”
“Our hope was that we could mobilize the community, and that’s what we’ve done,” Rutkoske said.
School Board President Melissa Thompson says she understands why the parents have organized. “I believe many of the concerns they’ve brought forward are things we need to work on,” she said. “We want them to understand we’re parents as well. We’re all in this together.”
(Thompson said Thursday that she is not planning to run for re-election in May. She has been on the school board for nine years, the last three as president. Three of the nine seats on the board will be up for election this year. Meredith Heuer, Antony Tseng and Michael Rutkoske have announced their candidacies. “The fact that we have multiple people running is a great thing,” Thompson said. “I think it’s time that I take a back seat and sit on the other side of the table.”)
According to Larry Cohen, a three-time former Beacon school board member and a current member of the Fishkill Town Council, the Beacon district took a turn for the worse around 2011 when the school board’s committee structure (Cohen had been chair of the Budget and Finance committee) was disbanded.
“The board (then) lost touch with knowing what was going on in the district before things happened. We could only be reactive, and that was a big frustration,” Cohen said.
Not long after, Bandlow began his eight-month stint as superintendent and then, after a year with Hilburgh as interim, Dorward was hired for the job. Beyond dry official statements at their departures, no explanations have accounted for why Bandlow and Dorward’s tenures were so short.
“The general sense was that there was a lot of turnover, and therefore something must be wrong,” Allee said.
Thompson said she gets that sentiment, too. “It takes a special person who can celebrate the (diverse) makeup of Beacon,” she said, adding that she believes Walkley is the right fit for Beacon, although the superintendent is “hampered” right now by external controversy.
When Walkley replaced Dorward as interim superintendent in 2014, she was “a breath of fresh air,” Cohen said. “She was phenomenal. We all agreed that she brought sanity to the district,” he said.
Rutkoske’s petition, signed by 48 other parents and calling for the dismissal of Walkley and the school system’s attorney, alleges that Walkley and Pilla (then known by her married name, Kimberly Atwell) developed an “unethical relationship,” declaring further, “it is clear that Ms. Pilla was given preferential treatment and favors from Dr. Walkley.” The petition goes on to state “Walkley was taking guidance from Ms. Pilla … utilizing her knowledge, connections and relationships in order to ensure Dr. Walkley’s success in the district.”
The petition further alleges, “Ms. Pilla was privy to significant confidential information in the (Beacon City School District). It appears that there was nothing off limits, as she was acting as Dr. Walkley’s sounding board and mentor.”
The petition makes reference to numerous email exchanges between Walkley and Pilla.
Although Pilla is listed on the school system website as a Beacon High School physical education teacher, Rutkoske’s petition states that she was named an “Instructional Support Teacher” in September 2014. Her duties in that new position, and whether they were adequately performed, have been unclear to the public, it states.
“The list of indiscretions, abuse of power and unethical conduct by Dr. Walkley to assist and promote Ms. Pilla goes on and on,” the petition alleges.
The school system, through the district’s attorney, Michael Lambert, filed an 18-page response, accusing Rutkoske of illegally obtaining personal email correspondence and requesting that the petition be dismissed in its entirety.
Rutkoske “fails to cite any district policy that was allegedly violated or any taxpayer funds that were allegedly misused,” Lambert wrote in the district’s response.
Rutkoske said that she began connecting with teachers in Beacon after an incident last March involving her son, now a Beacon High School junior. It was then that she began investigating the school system further.
“The teachers said, ‘By the way, this is just a tiny little bit of what’s going on in our school district,’” Rutkoske said.
The incident involving Rutkoske’s son, which she did not elaborate on, led to an investigation by the U.S. Office for Civil Rights (OCR) that is still ongoing.
On Wednesday, the OCR confirmed that its investigation at the Beacon City School District was opened on September 24, 2015. The issues in the case “involve whether the district has adopted grievance procedures providing for the prompt and equitable resolution of complaints of sex discrimination and has properly trained staff to respond to such complaints (Title IX). However, because this is an open investigation, we cannot provide additional details or case-specific information,” OCR’s Jim Bradshaw wrote in an email.
When asked how the administrative controversies have affected the students of the Beacon City School District, Burns, the BTA president, said there have been some miscommunication issues and scheduling snafus related to staff turnover.
“But when that bell rings in the morning, it’s business,” he said, “and it’s a sanctuary. You can lose yourself in the classroom.”