NIAGARA FALLS – The Niagara Falls School District rewards adequately performing teachers but overlooks some who receive better evaluations from administrators and whose students have higher passing rates on state tests, according to a School Board member.
The city School Board last month granted tenure to all six teachers recommended by Superintendent Cynthia A. Bianco. The group of instructors getting tenure included one School Board member’s son.
“Why this administration and this board insist on settling for ‘good’ teachers with poor pass rates is beyond my comprehension,” board member Ronald J. Barstys said. “Such actions to me are unconscionable. Clearly the district’s motto, ‘Learning for All, Whatever It Takes’ has taken a backseat to ‘good is good enough.’ ”
Barstys said there are regular substitutes in the district who “totally outperformed” some of those granted tenure. One teacher was not considered for tenure even though her students’ pass rate on state tests was 90 percent. One teacher who was granted tenure had some of the worst pass rates in the teacher’s department, according to Barstys.
There were two teachers of the six who received tenure whom Barstys said he would have taken off the approved list. What’s even more concerning to Barstys is the long-term implications of the practice, if year after year some teachers with underwhelming performances see their job security bolstered without deserving such protection.
“We’re tenuring just ‘good’ teachers,” he said, “and I don’t think that’s fair.”
When teachers are granted tenure it becomes harder and more costly for the district to terminate their employment.
The New York State School Boards Association believes tenure review is a sacred duty of school board members and tries to educate members not to treat it lightly, said Jay Worona, general counsel for the organization.
Worona said some school boards say they believe in the superintendent’s decisions and feel they don’t need to partake in a rigorous review.
“We’re just saying if somebody doesn’t feel comfortable and they feel they need more information, we let them know what their rights are,” Worona said.
In training he received from the School Boards Association when he was a new board member, Barstys said he took away that reviewing tenure candidates is a “fiduciary responsibility” needed in order to build trust in a district that there’s some oversight provided.
The way things work in the Falls is not necessarily representative of the culture of other districts, according to Barstys.
“It’s a culture in Niagara Falls that it’s simply the superintendent makes a recommendation and that’s what the board pays her to do, and the board just accepts her recommendations and we move on,” he said.
Board member Johnny G. Destino said he agrees with Barstys’ position and believes that most board members fail to understand what their role should be in the tenure process.
In its May 21 vote, six teachers working in elementary, middle and high school levels were approved for tenure as of Sept. 1 of this year.
Most of the employees in this group have taught in the district at least 10 years, and none just got out of college or would be considered novices, Barstys said. The majority of the group included teachers who did deserve tenure, according to Barstys. He believes not all of them did.
“For people to be teaching that long and only muster up “good” on their evaluations and have horrible pass rates, to me why have they been here this long?” Barstys said.
The group included Michael A. Vilardo, a high school science teacher and son of School Board member Nicholas S.J. Vilardo.
When asked whether he believed the fact that a board member’s son was a tenure candidate had anything to do with the resulting vote, Barstys declined to comment.
The vote of the School Board was 6-1 and came after about two minutes of comments from Barstys, the lone dissenter, who started by calling what he found “a sobering realization” and ended by saying, “I vote a resounding no.”
As for what others on the board or in the administration thought, they revealed nothing about their rationale or their support for the action.
Only board member Carmelette A. Rotella made a comment, voting “a resounding yes” after Barstys voted. Two board members, Destino and Vincent A. “Jimmy” Cancemi, were absent from the meeting.
When asked why he believed he received no support from any of the other board members in attendance, Barstys again declined to comment.
School Board President Russell J. Petrozzi said he always takes the recommendation of the superintendent on tenure matters, saying board members are not in the classrooms and therefore not in a position to judge teachers’ abilities.
“I’m confident that she would not put forward anyone that wasn’t worthy of tenure nor that was not a good teacher,” Petrozzi said.
Of those granted tenure last month, the board president described the group as “all good teachers.”
Board member Nicholas Vilardo said he believes the district does hire good teachers and trusts the recommendations of the superintendent and her staff. The district has been following its long-standing process for hiring and granting tenure, he said. If Barstys wants to change how it’s done, “we can work on that,” Vilardo said.
Vilardo said he did not know whether Barstys had any issue with his son’s candidacy for tenure because he hasn’t talked to him since the meeting.
Bianco, the district’s superintendent, did not return three messages requesting comment left over a period of several weeks.