July 27, 2007

McGraw school board fires principal

Residents speak out on his behalf, call the decision a ‘big mistake’


Bob Ellis/staff photographer
McGraw Central School District superintendent Maria Fragnoli-Ryan, left, and school board President Michelle Stauber listen to McGraw residents speak out in favor of high school principal Curt Czarniak. The board later voted to terminate his employment.

Staff Reporter

McGRAW — The Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday to fire High School Principal Curt Czarniak.
Czarniak, 54, was principal for only one year. He said he was ousted for insubordination, explaining that he failed to turn in improvement plans for two untenured teachers, for fear they would be fired.
District officials have not commented publicly on the reasons for the firing, saying it was a confidential personnel matter.
The quick vote by the board Thursday came after public comments were made and a petition in support of Czarniak was given to the board signed by those who attended a farewell party Wednesday. The petition included 55 signatures, gathered in less than two hours.
Czarniak was not at the board meeting. He said Thursday morning he did not feel he could sway the superintendent or board to change their minds.
School Superintendent Maria Fragnoli-Ryan has not returned repeated phone calls for comment.
Many district residents spoke on Czarniak’s behalf Thursday night.
“He’s a man with very high principles,” Debbie Glover-Osinski, a 53-year-old district resident, told the board. “Curt has done what others couldn’t for a junior/senior high school in one year. When you vote him out tonight you’re doing a disservice to our students. We trusted you and think you’re making a big mistake.”
Glover-Osinski’s son graduated from McGraw in 2006. Many community members agreed with Glover-Osinski and were in disbelief as the board continued on with the vote.
“I would say to this board that there has been an apparent problem at this school for the past five years and I am asking, what are you doing about it?” said Larry Paser. “As a taxpayer, I am interested in the board doing something. And I am not going to back off because you’re in a tight spot and pretty soon it is going to be hard for you to bring in someone decent.”
Paser, who would not disclose his age, is a retired principal and superintendent at an unspecified school in New York. His wife graduated from McGraw in the 1950s and they now own a house in the district.
The new interim principal, William Doughty, former executive principal at Cortland Junior/Senior High School and science teacher at McGraw, will be the fifth principal for McGraw since 2001. Doughty was hired effective July 30 to July 30, 2008.
Paul Glover, Debbie Glover-Osinski’s husband, addressed the board as well, stating that even though the board may consider the matter closed, the community does not.
“A new principal every year is not acceptable to this community,” Paul Glover said.
Board member William Hakes responded to the public outcry and said, “Czarniak let us down.”
Board President Michelle Stauber said the situation is a personnel matter and as such board members cannot comment further on it.
“I think everyone was really respectful. I understand their positions and we wish we could give them answers but we can’t,” said board President Michelle Stauber.
Czarniak taught in the McGraw district as a science teacher from 1994 through 1996. He then moved to a teaching position at Tully High School and taught there for over five years before becoming the principal.
He has plans to go back to teaching.



Lawyers consider challenge to conflict attorney 

Some question whether new position actually will save the county money as intended.

Staff Reporter

A little more than a week before Cortland County’s newly hired conflict attorney is scheduled to begin work, opposition to the position, from local lawyers, is again being raised.
A resolution to pursue a civil action against the county will go before the Cortland County Bar Association at its Aug. 14 meeting, Bar Association Vice-President Mark Suben said Thursday.
“The bar association has no position at this point, but some members have brought it up, they want us to explore (a legal challenge) … so we’re going to discuss it at the meeting,” said Sueben, who was speaking for the bar because current President Ron Walsh Jr. is employed by the county as assistant county attorney.
Thomas Miller, who was hired as conflict attorney by the Legislature last month, is slated to begin work Aug. 6, and should be able to start accepting overflow cases from the Public Defenders’ Office immediately, County Administrator Scott Schrader said Thursday afternoon.
Miller’s position was created in response to the rising costs of hiring assigned counsel, private local lawyers who work at a rate of $75 per hour, to handle cases that cannot be handled by the Public Defenders’ Office, Schrader said.
Assigned counsel costs reached $332,500 in 2006, Schrader said, $175,000 more than budgeted, and legislators have already doubled the original $150,000 allocation for 2007.
The hope is that by dedicating a salaried position — the attorney and a paralegal position approved by the Legislature on Thursday will cost $125,000 annually — to handling a large portion of those cases, the county will save approximately $200,000 on assigned counsel costs, Schrader said.
“This position is designed to reduce our reliance on an assigned counsel program, it was never designed to completely replace it,” Schrader said.
Local lawyers opposed to the position are saying the new position will not accomplish the intended effect, and are suggesting the position was not created legally.
Sueben said it was premature to discuss the legal options the bar would have to challenge the position; however attorneys Frank Williams and Ed Goehler, both of whom work frequently on assigned counsel cases for the county, said the county did not run the position through proper channels before passing the local law creating it.
The county should have sought input or recommendations from the bar association regarding the new position, Williams said, and then should have brought the matter to Chief Administrative Judge Jonathon Lippman, who oversees the administration of assigned counsel.
Schrader said it is the county’s right to create the position through local law, and it did so legally and received approval of that law by the state Legislature.


Sale of Stewart Place house draws criticism

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — A resolution to essentially forgive a $70,000 lien on a now-vacant house on Stewart Place became political fodder at Thursday’s Legislature session before it was ultimately pulled to allow the county to deal with the lien through proper legal channels.
Kathy Wilcox, a Republican challenging incumbent Ron Van Dee (D-5th Ward), criticized Van Dee during the public comment portion of the meeting for pushing the dissolution of the lien, while Van Dee said he was only anxious to see the property at 17 Stewart Place, which owes $11,000 in back taxes, again paying taxes.
The property, vacant since 2001 and assessed at $48,300, has a $73,000 lien imposed on it by DSS due to Medicaid costs incurred by previous owners Clifford and Verna Lowell, who are now deceased, according to DSS Commissioner Kristen Monroe.
DSS has acquired the mortgage on the property because of the lien.
Van Dee had pushed for legislative intervention on behalf of Aloi, who has agreed to purchase the property from the daughter of the previous owners, Mary Helmer, but needs to have the lien satisfied in order to do so.
Aloi declined comment Thursday, but last week after a meeting of the Budget and Finance Committee she said she had purchased the house without knowledge of the lien, had already taken steps to renovate it and was now in limbo waiting for action from the county.
According to both Monroe and County Administrator Scott Schrader, when a buyer for a vacant property with a lien emerges, DSS is required to seek compensation in order to settle the lien, because 90 percent of the money owed for the lien is actually Medicaid owed to the state and federal governments.
The owed taxes take precedence, Monroe said, and Aloi and the daughter of the previous owners were prepared to pay the back taxes out of the sale price, but the issue became determining an acceptable amount to dissolve the lien.
“There’s a procedure that has to be followed, it can’t be ignored,” Schrader said. “If there’s any value to this property, it has to go towards the lien, that’s the requirement.”
Monroe said that typically in situations like these, DSS seeks an independent appraisal of the property and subtracts the taxes owed to the county to determine an amount that would satisfy the lien.
Monroe had been waiting for an appraisal of the property and said Thursday she had just received an appraisal based on the outside of the building of $50,000.
Based on that appraisal, $11,000 would be owed to the county for back taxes, and $39,000 would satisfy the lien, however Monroe noted the appraisal was likely flexible and would be subject to negotiation between DSS and Aloi’s attorneys.


Cincy gains literacy grant

Staff Reporter

CINCINNATUS — A $144,537 federal grant will enable Cincinnatus to purchase more than 3,000 new books for its library and develop strategies to increase student literacy.
“We have a pretty old collection,” said Renee Carpenter, the district’s elementary school principal, who helped apply for the grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
Cincinnatus is one of 78 low-income school districts nationwide that have received an Improving Literacy Through School Libraries grant.
The biggest portion of the grant — $55,000 worth — will go toward replacing three-fourths of the school’s library collection with 3,250 new books as well as newspapers and periodicals.
The library’s media specialist will work with teachers to pick out new books for the library, Carpenter said.
About $45,000 of the grant will go toward 20 desktop computers, as well as accessories for the computers, including firewalls, printers and a digital camera kit.
Carpenter said it has not been determined yet where the computers will be placed. She said the new computer lab will give teachers the opportunity to sign up and take their students there for various lessons.
The grant also will pay for a literacy specialist to meet with teachers and faculty on staff development days to reinforce literacy strategies and incorporate the methods more throughout the year.
The district had a specialist this year, Carpenter said, but she did not get as involved as the new one will.
“This grant will allow us to take it to the next level by having someone come in during the school year in the classroom and offer some feedback,” she said.
In addition, the grant pays for new reading software, including the Accelerated Reading Program. The program allows students to take a quiz on a book they have just read. It provides teachers with a detailed evaluation of the students’ strengths and weaknesses.
“It just gives teachers more data to make informed decisions, but it also provides a love of reading to students,” she said.