When the Rome City School District Board of Education members emerged from executive session on Wednesday, July 7, to conduct its annual reorganization meeting and first regular meeting of the new school year, Vice President Tanya Davis, after calling the meeting to order and leading the Pledge of Allegiance, took a moment to “make a statement.”
“I’d like to apologize for my recent actions,” said Davis, referring to an incident at the Rome Free Academy boys lacrosse banquet, held June 30 at a local restaurant where Davis is reported to have publicly confronted the team’s head coach Guy Calandra.
“I acted out of emotion as a mother,” continued Davis. “This in no way reflects my level of commitment to the Board of Education or this community.” Davis went on to say how sincerely sorry she was to Calandra, her fellow board members and the community for what she called “an error in judgment.”
Tricia Rutkowski spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting to share that she, her husband and her mother-in-law witnessed the incident as they were leaving the banquet. Rutkowski said she was so upset that she was unable to sleep that night. She went on to defend Calandra, who has just concluded his 19th year coaching lacrosse at Rome Free Academy and other coaches who work in the district.
She shared that she had seen Calandra for years encourage kids of all “shapes, sizes and demographics” to try lacrosse, offering to get them the equipment they needed if that was an obstacle. She pointed out that district coaches contribute a lot of passion in their work, above and beyond the extent to which their stipends compensate.
“To see the way you charged at him – to see the way that that man could not even cross the street? And to know that you are the vice president of the school board,” Rutkowski said directly to Davis, “makes me ill.”
Rutkowski shared that Davis’s confrontation of Calandra was so ferocious that her husband, a former law enforcement officer, was standing by, believing that that the Rome Board of Education officer was about to physically strike the high school coach. Rutkowski added that her mother-in-law, who had dined with the couple at the Franklin restaurant that night, had traveled to Rome from Florida to visit the family. “And she got to see a Board member attack a faculty member from our district,” said Rutkowski. “It was embarrassing.”
Jacqueline Nelson, executive director of the Rome Branch of the NAACP, also made a statement. She opened to make clear that she spoke on behalf of the NAACP and its executive board and initially addressed her expectation that Davis would have been elected president of the board during the reorganization meeting. She said she was surprised to see Davis instead open the meeting and nominate John Nash for president, a motion that carried unanimously.
“We were concerned that leadership of the school board was going to take a turn at which the NAACP would not be accepted as a part of the community,” said Nelson. “We have come a long way in working with the school district. We have formed many partnerships with the school district. And we want to ensure with the new leadership that this continues and is not side-barred because some of you may have different views on how things should be going with regard to equity, diversity and all of the things that we have concerns with.”
Nelson went on to say that she appreciated Davis’ apology and expressed her hope that nothing like the incident ever occur again. “It is a distraction that this school district does not need,” said Nelson.
Nelson addressed Nash and the new members present to say she hoped that they would work with the NAACP; embrace them. “We just want to ensure that what is written on that wall goes for all the children in the school district,” said Nelson.
Nelson was referring to the Rome City School District Mission Statement, the words of which are painted on the walls of the room where the Board of Education convenes, together with images of diverse students, which reads:
“We are a diverse and innovated educational community that believes through both words and actions that all students can learn and be successful. We provide continuous academic and social growth from Pre-K to graduation to ensure that students are life-long learners, productive citizens and member of the global economy.”
New officers confirmed
Proceeding her statement regarding the events of June 30, Davis requested a board member volunteer to serve as interim clerk in order to preside over the nomination of a board president. Joseph Mellace agreed, and Davis nominated John Nash for board president. The motion was quickly seconded and carried unanimously. Davis thanked the now past President, Paul Hagerty, “for an excellent year” before Nash and Hagerty ceremoniously changed chairs.
“Thank you, everybody, for the nomination and for the vote of confidence in me,” said Nash. “I want to thank Paul for his leadership this past year. It’s been a tough year, but he steered us well.”
Nash welcomed the two new board members present, Elena Cardwell-Reddick and Anna Megerell. Craig Ferretti, the third newly elected member, was not in attendance. “I just want you all to know that my only agenda going forward is this district and our students,” said Nash. “That’s our main focus.”
Megerell then nominated Tanya Davis to continue as vice president with a second from Dr. Karen Fontana. The measure was carried with only Mellace opposed. Fontana was nominated and unanimously confirmed as board clerk.
The board then approved a number of measures, delegating duties and authorizing the hiring of legal counseling, fiscal service professionals and other reauthorizations.
New COVID guiandace
Superintendent Peter C. Blake shared what he posed as positive news regarding COVID-19 restrictions. New guidance sent down from the State of New York now permits school districts to treat summer programming according to the same guidance governing summer camps and that is that fully vaccinated persons do not need to wear masks, either indoors or outdoors. Unvaccinated persons may wear a mask, but it is not required.
Blake confirmed that this new guidance would not extend through the fall of 2021 and that updated guidance would be issued to districts by the state some time near the end of August. Blake also noted that the State’s guidance permitted individual school districts to put more restrictive mask guidelines in place, at their discretion.
He clarified that he was simply sharing the guidance from the state and that the district has made no decision yet with regard to any revision to the State guidance.
“I am awaiting a legal opinion on the new information before we move forward with any changes,” said Blake. “If there are changes, they would be announced next week.”
Blake shared his initial concern bing that students in summer programs that were able to unmask could then possibly be required to, again, wear a mask when school starts in the fall. “We just don’t have any information on what to expect in September yet,” said Blake.
Blake did express during his remarks to the Board that, for students under 12 participating in summer programs – who are not yet allowed to be vaccinated – the less restrictive mask requirements were “good news.”
Board approves new hires, positions
Motions advanced by the district’s People Operations committee included hiring, leaves of absence, retirements, sale or disposal of obsolete property and other miscellaneous items, were all carried. The motions included confirming positions and salaries for four math teachers, six elementary AIS Math teachers, eight reading teachers and five social workers.
In response to a Member asking why so many math instructors were being hired, it was advised that the openings were created by resignations and retirements that the committee was able to “hop on early” because those were known in advance. It was also confirmed that one role was a long-term substitute at Strough due to a maternity leave.
The motion to approve the Math positions carried unanimously with appointments for Brendan Woodward (Strough) at a salary of $56,440; Felicity Jones (Strough) $46,639; Brianne Kent (RFA) $46,639; and Athena Hoffman (Strough) $52,940.
The request to create five school social worker positions and eight elementary reading positions was in connection with earmarking federal ESSER and ARPA funding. In discussion among members, it was confirmed that there are currently five district-wide social worker positions. Four are currently filled and one is vacant due to a resignation. So, four of the five positions would be newly created. Further discussion ensued over when the board would have clarity around whether the social worker team was sufficient to meet the needs of the district. The motion, nevertheless, passed.
In response to the motion to add eight elementary reading positions to be funded by federal ARPA monies, Fontana, while clarifying that she was not against hiring more teachers in this discipline, believed that more discussion and data were needed to understand how effective the district’s current reading program was.
Davis added the district had just recently laid off several AIS teachers, yet now was hiring more AIS teachers? She expressed concerns about the district’s ability to sustain and retain the best teachers and was unsure she could support approving eight positions. She pointed out that the federal monies would expire in five years, despite the positions being based on a current level of need, and also had concerns about whether, in the current hiring climate, the district could identify a total of eight qualified candidates. The motion passed 5-3 with nay votes from Fontana, Davis and Cardwell-Reddick.
The resolutions for the social workers and AIS teachers were for the creation of positions and did not include the appointment of any specific proposed personnel to fill them.