Written by Jill Nossa Wednesday, 17 April 2013 00:00
The Glen Cove school district has acknowledged that an investigation is continuing into allegations that students at two elementary schools may have been coached during math and other assessment testing in the spring of last year. The district said that the investigating began late last year.
At a school board meeting last week, district officials refused to provide details of the investigation, leaving some in the audience unsatisfied and searching for answers.
In a statement posted on the district’s website, schools superintendent Joseph A. Laria said the allegations “relate to ‘coaching’ of students during the administration of NYS grades 3, 4, and 5 ELA and Math assessments in spring of 2012 conducted at Connolly and Landing Elementary Schools.”
Laria said it was with “great disappointment” that the district reported the investigation. “These allegations, if true, represent a grave disservice to the children, families and community of Glen Cove,” he said in the statement. Laria added that the school board retained outside counsel to conduct the investigation that consisted of interviews with staff members, students and building administrators regarding protocols and practices applied during the administration of the exams.
Additionally, he said, the state education department has been notified. “The district launched this proactive and necessary investigation in November 2012 after allegations were brought to the district’s attention,” Laria said.
“There is no reason to believe that there is any criminal misconduct and there are currently no pending district charges against any teachers or administrators,” he added.
At the school board meeting last week, dozens of Glen Cove residents said they were looking for answers.
The board’s attorney, John Gross, spent an hour fielding questions, many of which he did not answer. Before taking questions, he acknowledged that due to legal and constitutional rights of the people involved, he was allowed to say very little on the matter. “I have a serious responsibility to avoid infringement on the rights of individuals and personnel,” Gross said.
He said that some issues have been raised regarding the “integrity of the standardized testing procedure and administration” and that the “testing process is taken very seriously” by the state and any instances of impropriety must be looked into before any action is taken. The investigation is currently in the information gathering stage.
He asked that parents, staff and community “embrace the process with a great degree of patience” and “try to avoid speculation.”
Questions raised included cost of the investigation, whether or not details would be made public after the conclusion and whether or not children were being protected.
Eric Bailey asked if children were being questioned, and if so, whether or not parents were in the room with them. Gross said since he was not the one investigating, he could not answer the question.
Zefy Christopoulous said she feared the validity of the “trigger” of the investigation.
“When our community is wronged, we take action,” she said.
Another resident who said he has lived in the district for close to 40 years said, “I have never heard the kind of stories I’ve heard in the last couple weeks…I want to hear from Dr. Laria about what is going on in the district.” Laria remained silent during the meeting.
Many Glen Cove residents are taking a cautious approach to the allegations. “We don’t know anything yet,” one woman said outside the Glen Cove Stop & Shop, “There isn’t that much information out there, so people shouldn’t be speaking out on this,” one mother who asked that her name not be used, said over the telephone. Others wonder whether there is a need for such investigation.
“They have never said how the allegations were made,” said Tom Gartmayer, a Glen Cove resident. “I don’t know if it is overblown or if there is anything to it.”
“I think there might be some alternative explanation,” said Bill Campbell, another city resident. He finds it difficult to believe that teachers would endanger their jobs by doing what they have been accused of doing — “Not in this day and age when jobs are so hard to come by.”
Dr. Robert Romanelli, a chiropractor who lives in Glen Cove but practices in Oyster Bay, noted that he was uncertain about the truth of the allegations but emphasized the complexity of the situation.
“I think teachers are under tremendous pressure to help their students pass these tests. Society has changed. Cheating is more accepted,” he said, citing the different types of cheating scandals in schools that have arisen in the past few years in New York City and Long Island.
The situation, he said, raises questions about the tests themselves. “What do they think they are accomplishing? They are teaching kids to pass the tests,” Romanelli said. “They are not teaching them to master the material or how to think. We have to reconsider this whole approach to testing.”
The budget adoption is only days away and the administration is proposing a budget of $76.6 million. Laria said the proposed budget reflects a 2.42 percent tax levy increase, which is within the cap, and is an increase of $2.5 million or 3.4 percent over the current budget. The board will vote on adopting the budget at the April 22 meeting; it must be voted on for the community’s approval on May 21.
“We have made every reasonable effort not to cut programs or reduce teaching positions,” Laria said.
He said the proposed budget includes implementing the “wheel” to allow sixth-graders to rotate elective choices in music at the middle school, increasing the safety and security systems of the schools and purchasing a new boiler for Landing Elementary School. A huge savings - approximately $650,000 - is expected to come from the reduction of transportation costs. A transportation study has been completed and was distributed to the public; an in-depth discussion will take place at a future meeting, when the preparer, John Robertson of John Robertson Transportation Consulting, can be present. Essentially, the district found that by changing the start times of the schools, fewer buses will be needed. The board will vote on whether or not to approve the recommendations and implement the changes after further discussion.
Laria said that for the proposed budget, the district can draw from the worker’s compensation reserve fund as well as the tax certiorari reserve fund, as these funds currently have “healthy reserves.” He noted that this will not be an option next year.
“This provides a healthy balance since no programs or teachers are being excessed,” Laria said. “I believe this budget is fiscally prudent and educationally sound.”
Board President Joel Sunshine touched on the burden school districts have in New York State of covering the cost of the pension plan, which accounts for a large amount of the increase and is a factor that the school district has no control over. He expressed concern that the rising costs cannot be sustained for much longer.
“I am concerned that we are tapping our reserve funds,” said Sunshine. “Our educational programs cannot take another big hit.”
Trustee Dave Huggins, who is on the facilities committee, discussed the importance of including a new boiler at Landing into the budget. “The boiler is 80 years old...if we wait until December to put up a bond, it might be too late. We want to get it done.” Huggins also addressed the need for upgrading security systems to ensure the safety of the schools and said he would like to see a generator at Thayer House, if nowhere else, since it is the “brain of the school” and the whole network goes down when power outages occur.