A Going Away Party Turns Critical

    “A love fest” was how Eric Casale, the principal of the Springs School, described Monday night’s school board meeting, during which two of its members bid a final farewell. But quickly talk turned to questions concerning his leadership in dealing with a cheating scandal when he was a principal in the Bronx.

    Monday marked the last time that Kathee Burke-Gonzalez and Teresa Schurr would hold court, after serving as board members for nine years and six years, respectively. Jeff Miller and Adam Wilson, their newly elected replacements, will begin their three-year terms on July 1.

    Joe Gonzalez, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez’s husband, first addressed the room of nearly 50 attendees, saying that the “nine years represented a lot of hard work and sacrifice at the house.”

    Timothy Frazier, a board member, described Ms. Burke-Gonzalez as a “leader and a champion of the Springs School community.” He added, “We thank you for your leadership, commitment, focus, and love for our school.”

    Of Ms. Schurr, Mr. Frazier said he would miss her “crystal-clear honesty,” as a colleague apparently known for speaking her mind.

    Both women received a standing ovation before the meeting briefly adjourned for slices of strawberry sheet cake.
    Before the celebration could begin, however, Carol Buda, a Springs resident, approached the lectern, and in so doing radically changed the mood of the night.

    “It’s not easy to get up here, especially on a night when you’re leaving,” Ms. Buda said. “Quite a few people didn’t want to come to the school board meeting because of the negative repercussions. It should be an open process and one where people feel comfortable expressing an opposing point of view.”

     Ms. Buda spoke at length concerning the recent resignation of Katherine Byrnes, the former assistant principal, and the rumors that have since swirled concerning both the school’s reporting of testing irregularities to New York State and the prior tenure of Mr. Casale at P.S. 91 in the Bronx.

FOIL Report

    According to a report from Thomas Hyland, a former deputy director of the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Special Investigations, Mr. Casale denied that he had knowledge of testing misconduct and that he failed to report it, per chancellor’s regulations. After submitting a Freedom of Information Law request, The East Hampton Star obtained a heavily redacted copy of the report.

    But the report’s conclusion, dated August 2005, cites two redacted names whose statements corroborated the initial complaint: “Mr. Casale had knowledge that Mrs. Lee engaged in possible misconduct by assisting fourth graders with test answers and failed to report the complaint.” It refers to Barbara Lee, an administrator and former teacher, who provided answers to students during a 2004 Regents exam.

    Following a costly legal battle, the city eventually fired Ms. Lee. Mr. Casale, the report notes, submitted his resignation effective June 30, 2005. Later that summer, he reported for duty at the Springs School.

    “My feeling is that people are not satisfied with the process and how it was handled,” Ms. Buda said. “If mistakes were made, they should be acknowledged. This is a public school, not a private school. It’s a small community.”

    At issue in recent weeks has been whether Springs School officials were aware of the cheating allegations when the district first offered Mr. Casale the job during the spring of 2005. The subsequent recollections of various committee members who vetted his candidacy have since presented a hazy picture.

    In mid-May, Mr. Casale sent a two-page letter to Springs residents, describing recent coverage as “an extremely upsetting situation.” The next day, the Springs School Board issued a letter of support emphasizing that it had exercised due diligence and properly vetted his candidacy long before offering him the position. While the letters were initially posted on the school’s Web site, both have since been removed.

    “I see that everyone wants to gloss over it, and I don’t think that’s healthy,” Ms. Buda said. She later urged that the school’s hiring process be amended, particularly as it concerns a candidate’s references and work history. “How it’s resolved is really not so much the issue as the process. People are dissatisfied with the lack of resolution — particularly because we’re talking about areas of leadership in children’s lives.”

Moving On . . .

    Later in the meeting, Mr. Casale addressed the school’s recent state test scores, the subject of another story in this week’s paper. Schoolwide, he said that 86 percent of Springs students are performing at or above grade level in math, with 73 percent performing at or above grade level in reading.

    In addition, Sema Mendelman, a Springs parent, gave a presentation about a summer program run by Camp Invention, an enrichment program that emphasizes math, science, and technology. Twenty-five Springs students are eligible to attend the program, which will run from Aug. 12 to Aug. 16. The camp is open to incoming first through sixth graders, at a cost of $245 for the week. Incoming seventh and eighth graders can apply to be counselors.

    Finally, Springs teachers emphasized the importance of summer reading, particularly for low-income children to help them maintain their academic gains over the summer months. Teachers said that extensive summer reading lists would be available at each of the local libraries. They include both fiction and nonfiction titles, with favorite authors grouped by grade level.