Banned from McGraw Elementary

Superintendent tells mother to stay away from property


Bob Ellis/staff photographer       
Standing on West Academy Street in McGraw, Melissa Ponticello helps her son Patrick with his backpack as her daughter, Nichole, and son Tyler look on Sept. 21. The school district has told Ponticello she will be arrested if she steps onto school property. This is as close as Ponticello is allowed to get to McGraw Elementary School, seen in the background.

Staff Reporter

McGRAW — From a block away Melissa Ponticello watches as her three children cross the road and walk onto the grounds of McGraw Elementary School.
Ponticello is barred from stepping foot on McGraw Central School District property.
“I would like to be able to do what I have done for the last eight years of my children’s schooling,” Ponticello said. “To be able to take my children to the school. To be able to pick my children up at the end of the day.”
Because of an incident in March, Ponticello cannot attend her children’s dances, soccer games or T-ball games. She is locked out of the most public functions, including Board of Education meetings.
“I think one of the things that struck me as the most outlandish was the suggestion that Ponticello is not permitted to attend Board of Education meetings,” said her Cortland-based lawyer, Ronald T. Walsh. Ponticello said she retained Walsh to resolve the issue with the district. Although Ponticello is vehemently opposed to legal action, if she is going to be pushed into a corner, she said, she will do what is in the best interest of her children.
Walsh said, “We are exploring our options.”
Ponticello said the ban started on March 21. While attending a celebration for her son’s Head Start class that had won a reading contest, she said, she was escorted out by the Cortland County Sheriff’s Department and given a letter banning her from school grounds.
The ban stems from an incident that took place on March 10, when the school was evacuated because of a smell in the air, which Ponticello speculated to be diesel. While taking her children home, Ponticello said one of her daughter’s classmates was walking toward her house.
Ponticello said she asked the child’s teacher, Eric Robb, for permission to take the child home.
I said, ‘Mr. Robb, can this child come to my home?’” Ponticello said. She said he replied, ‘Absolutely. It’s OK, Mrs. P.’” Robb could not be reached for comment.
The district accused Ponticello of taking the child off school grounds without parental consent.
Ponticello said the child she brought home from school often had breakfast and walked to school with her children.
Ponticello said Sonya Hyer had no problem with her child being removed by Ponticello. Numerous calls by the Cortland Standard to Hyer went unanswered.
A March 21 letter signed by Superintendent of Schools Maria S. Fragnoli-Ryan said, “We are advising you that you may not appear at the buildings or be on the grounds of the McGraw Central School District except when invited by a staff member of the District in a bonafide emergency involving your child.”
Both the principal and superintendent said they had no comment on Ponticello’s claims. Numerous calls to Board of Education members have gone unanswered.
For the past six months Ponticello has been communicating with the school district through her lawyer. The school district also sought legal counsel in the firm of Hogan, Sarzynski, Lynch, Surowka and DeWind.
In the documents, the school district tells Ponticello it is using state Education Law, Section 2801, to keep her off district grounds. The law gives the board the authority to establish rules and regulations concerning order and discipline in the schools. The documents also outline the steps that Ponticello must take in order to get access to the district buildings.
According to the documents, Ponticello must call the receptionist, Fleurette Clough, and ask permission to attend a school function. She must give the date and event she would like to attend. The principal has the authority to deny or grant Ponticello’s request.
Brian Ponticello, Melissa Ponticello’s husband, said the entire issue exasperates him.
“I wish … the superintendent, and the board had to answer to someone,” he said.
The Ponticellos said they strongly suspect the board and superintendent are trying to punish them for advocating for their son Tyler, who has severe allergies to whey, wheat, orange food dyes, latex, bee stings, dairy and numerous antibiotics.
“The first time they took the cheese off the hamburger, it seemed as if they were touching arsenic,” Brian Ponticello said. “They made my soon feel real self conscious.”
According to Melissa Ponticello and her attorney, the superintendent informed her on Sept. 10, the ban is “indefinite.”
Ponticello ran unsuccessfully for a school board seat in the spring. Six candidates ran for four seats.
Ponticello said the issue involving herself and the board is taking its toll on her family. She said her children, Nichole, 10, Tyler, 8, and Patrick, 5, have been harassed by other school children.
She said not only is this affecting her children’s social life, but their academic careers as well.
The Ponticellos say they are at their wits end. Their children are unhappy and they are frustrated with the district’s behavior.
“I just wanted my kids to be treated like Sally and Bradley,” said Brian Ponticello referring generically to other children. “It is a nightmare. They have run (Melissa) through the mill.”
Ponticello said the family has intentions of leaving the district. But for now, Melissa Ponticello will stand at the end of the walkway of McGraw Elementary and Nichole will walk her brothers the rest of the way.
“My daughter has basically taken on the role of a mother to her brothers,” Melissa Ponticello said.



Toppled truck tangles traffic along Route 13

Staff Reporter

DRYDEN — Officials detoured traffic this morning around Route 13 after a box truck struck a car, leaving the truck on its side, resting across both lanes of traffic.
Dryden Deputy Fire Chief Tom Warner said the truck was traveling west on Route 13 when another driver, a woman in her 20s, pulled off from George Road to make a left turn.
Warner said the truck struck the Honda Element and badly damaged the front of the car. The woman was transported to Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca but was not seriously injured.
“She was a very lucky girl,” Warner said.
Warner would not release the woman’s name.
George Ryan, 52, of Elmira was driving the truck and said the accident happened around 7:20 this morning.
“I was driving down the road and she made a left turn and blew the stop sign,” he said. “I ripped the front off her car.”
Ryan was not injured in the crash.
Traffic had to be detoured on Spring House Road for several hours so that officials could get the truck off the road.
Horwitz Janitorial Supplies Co. owns the truck. Ryan said he was traveling from Elmira to Syracuse to make deliveries.
Firefighters cut the top of the cargo truck open and unloaded boxes of supplies so the truck could be turned upright.
As of 9:45 a.m. firefighters were still working on the cleanup.



State revokes liquor license of convicted bar owner

Staff Reporter

Almost nine months after the owner pleaded guilty to charges related to child pornography, the liquor license for Patino Murphy’s bar at 17 Central Ave. was removed on Friday and the establishment has since closed.
The liquor license was in the name of David Falso of Cortland, who also owned Bald Lucy’s Ale House at 31 Central Ave. The Bald Lucy license expired April 30.
Falso pleaded guilty Feb.1 to 242 federal charges related to producing, receiving, possessing and transporting child pornography. He was arrested on the charges June 8, 2005.
The Cortland Police Department had referred the arrest and conviction of Falso to the State Liquor Authority, said authority spokesman Bill Crowley.
“We had to go and take their license posted on their premises,” Crowley said Wednesday afternoon, adding that about 20 establishments lost their licenses during a regular meeting of the authority board on Sept. 20.
Following his arrest, Falso was required to alert the authority within 10 days, but neglected to do so, and so proceedings to revoke the license began, Crowley said.
In addition to the failure to notify the authority of the change of facts following his arrest, a Notice of Pleading issued on June 28, 2005, stated that Falso’s behavior leading up to the criminal charges was “of such improper nature as to warrant revocation,” of the license.
Falso had originally pleaded not guilty to both the criminal charges and the liquor license revocation proceedings, but a hearing scheduled for Aug. 4, 2006, was attended by neither Falso nor an attorney representing him, Crowley said. Former employees didn’t wish to comment on the situation this morning.



County to receive $2 million in flood aid

Staff Reporter

The county and its municipalities stand to receive nearly $2 million in state and federal assistance due to flooding this summer, and damages are still being tallied.
Representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the State Emergency Management Office working in the county have submitted 94 small project worksheets to their offices in Albany, claiming damages of $948,730, said Brenda DeRusso, assistant coordinator of fire and emergency management for the county.
The representatives, who have been meeting with local highway superintendents to determine damages since early August, have also submitted three large project worksheets, totaling approximately $850,000, DeRusso said.
A small project refers to any project with an estimated cost of less than $57,500.
Significantly more aid is likely, DeRusso said, as assessments have been completed for only three of the 17 municipalities that applied for aid. Freetown was found to have a total of $27,269 in damages, DeRusso said, Preble, $25,570 and Solon, $35,390.
So far 13 aid-eligible small projects have been identified for the county, with an estimated cost of $250,000, DeRusso said, and 10 projects have been identified for the village of McGraw, with a cost of about $50,000. McGraw also will receive $300,000 in aid for one of the large projects, repairs on the Bennett Street Park.
“This is actual money that will come back to Cortland County that will reimburse the labor forced used to deal with the flooding, the use of equipment and any materials used,” said DeRusso, noting these particular worksheets were filed Sept. 1, and would likely turn over in six to eight weeks.
“The team we have out here is very knowledgeable and they’re very concerned with looking at the underlying causes of the problems we’ve been having, and trying to mitigate,” she added.
SEMO representative Roy Kolczynski said the SEMO and FEMA team is more than 50 percent done with its assessment, and he expected all project worksheets to be completed by the end of October.