In charged meeting, parents and teachers ask for “seat at the table”
By Jeff Simms
The search for a new superintendent of the Beacon City School District has not yet begun to take shape, but on Monday, Jan. 25, hundreds of parents made it clear they want to be involved.
Around 300 people crowded into the Seeger Auditorium at Beacon High School for a Board of Education meeting — its fourth in two weeks, and first since the resignation of Superintendent Barbara Walkley on Jan. 21. The scene was reminiscent of Jan. 11, when hundreds of parents also filled the auditorium to voice their frustrations, despite the cancellation of that night’s board meeting.
Once the lengthy public comment portion of the meeting began, it became obvious why many were in attendance.
“Do not rush this process, please,” implored Lori Merhige, who is involved with the parents’ group Advocates for Beacon Schools, as she spoke to the board. “We are calling for an end to the status quo. Give us a seat at the table as we proceed together to heal, restructure and re-envision what Beacon’s schools can be.”
Merhige was referring to Walkley’s abrupt departure — almost exactly 12 months into her contract, which was to have run until June 2018. Instead, she received a nearly $63,000 buyout from the district, including pay for unused sick leave and vacation.
Walkley became the latest in a line of Beacon superintendents to resign without finishing their contracts. Since longtime superintendent Vito DiCesare retired in 2006, the seat has switched eight different times. Of those who were not interims, three, including Walkley, lasted less than 18 months.
Walkley had been dogged by controversy since she was hired permanently in February 2015. In August, 27 district teachers were reassigned across various schools and grade levels, and many speculated that the moves were politically motivated.
A Beacon parent, Melissa Rutkoske, also filed a petition in December with the state Department of Education, asking for Walkley and school district attorney Michael Lambert to be dismissed, after a series of emails between district officials and former teachers’ union president Kimberly Pilla were made public.
Rutkoske’s petition, which she said was filed on behalf of “many concerned parents,” alleged an inappropriate relationship between Walkley and Pilla, and that each worked behind the scenes to further an “unethical” agenda.
Lambert has said, and repeated on Monday, that he expects Rutkoske’s petition will be dismissed by the state. He was heavily criticized by speakers during the meeting for what they saw as his role in the board’s alleged lack of transparency.
John Burns, the current president of the Beacon Teachers Association, said that in December the union had passed a vote of no confidence in Walkley. And while the board’s inaction regarding Walkley “fractured” both the school district and the board, he said on Monday that teachers are ready to move on — as long as they remain informed. “We are teachers and we just want to teach,” he told the board. “All we ask for is a seat at the table.”
Pilla was present at the Monday board meeting — which grew tense at times as speakers and audience members shouted back and forth — and she heard her share of support from the community.
Talaya Wilkins, a 2003 Beacon High School graduate who is now an associate producer at ESPN, said that she would forever be “indebted” to Pilla for mentoring her after Wilkins said her mother walked out on her life. “I was taught how to turn my pain into my purpose and never allowed to use my story as a crutch in life. I want to publicly thank her for showing me how to beat the odds,” said Wilkins, who embraced Pilla as she returned to her seat.
Others simply seemed fed up with all the controversy.
“We have to lead by example,” said Beacon resident Timoline Hall. “If we teach our children to be judgmental, then that’s what they will do. We need to get away from the mudslinging.”
As for replacing Walkley (the board last week appointed Deputy Superintendent Ann Marie Quartironi as interim), there was some discussion about vetting processes that have and have not worked in the past. Ultimately, the board seemed unified that something must be done differently this time around.
“I agree [with a member of the audience] that we need to do a root-cause analysis as to why we’re struggling here,” said board member Christine Galbo, who advocated hiring a professional search firm to locate candidates. “I don’t think as a group we have the skills needed to guide us through a search.”
Although she did not comment directly on Walkley or any of the perceived actions of the board, Quartironi, the interim superintendent, spoke briefly about the 3,400 children who attend Beacon’s six schools, echoing comments made by several audience members: “The real purpose for all of us to be here is the education and well-being of our students, and I hope that continues.”