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Views vary on renewing Dickerson's contract

Monday, March 24, 2014 - Updated: 5:02 PM

By CRISTINE MEIXNER

Editor

LONG LAKE -- The signs are all good.

Outside the meeting room, a table holds hard copies of materials related to the board's agenda. Two opportunities for public comment are scheduled.

Inside, the board understands and follows proper procedure. The members generally speak cordially, even when discussing a highly charged subject on which they disagree.

This was the scene Thursday evening, March 13, when the Long Lake Central School District Board of Education met. But is there more than meets the eye?

Camille Nerney, wife of BOE Member Mike Nerney, told the board, "Seventy-five percent of faculty and staff are dreadfully unhappy with the direction and leadership of LLCS and are hoping the present superintendent's contract will not be extended."

Superintendent Mary Dickerson took her post in mid-August of 2009. With her contract coming up for renewal at the board's next meeting, Nerney's allegation bears looking into.

Telephone interviews with former board members, teachers and Superintendent Mary Jo Dickerson show a school divided. Some blame that on Dickerson, others on some of the teachers, one on the BOE.

The most common theme is Dickerson is not a good leader. But Dickerson says she believes in teamwork and is trying, with some success, to develop that here.

DICKERSON SPEAKS

LLCS has seen nine superintendents (some interim) come and go since 1996. Dickerson says, "Effectiveness of leadership has always been questioned in Long Lake.

"One of the problems is I am both superintendent and principal. Principal is a nurturing role; superintendent the visionary, direction person and accountable to the board. I enjoy doing both, but it's not easy. The paperwork is constant."

Dickerson cited a lengthy list of her accomplishments here, including establishing Maintenance; Health, Safety and Wellness; Professional Development; Culture; Gardening; and Technology committees as part of her teamwork efforts. "I'm big on teamwork," she says. "Eighty percent of my staff serves on one or more committees or advises one."

A slew of other accomplishments relate to curriculum, community outreach, implementing Common Core and the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) and new software programs to expedite paperwork.

"This is all from the ground up," Dickerson said. "Do I do it directly? I encourage them to do it. Is that a leader? I don't know. Am I a strong, out in front leader? Probably not. I believe in teamwork."

She is currently involved in contract negotiations for the second time. "The teacher's union is currently at an impasse again. They haven't gotten a raise, and I feel bad for that, but I have to be fiscally accountable," she said. "For the past two years we've managed to stay under the 2 percent tax cap, a huge leadership accomplishment.

"Another feather in my cap is we've maintained full programming; Family and Career Science, driver ed, art, music, business, foreign language, a full technology program, while many schools have cut back in those areas."

Asked twice about staff morale, Dickerson would not speak to LLCS specifically but answered, "It's at an all-time low throughout the state." She blames that on Common Core, the APPR and the tax cap.

"Leaders were not given a lot of input into the bigger picture of implementing Common Core, which left us leading without quite knowing where we are going. The standards are fine; it's all that goes with it, the testing, the teacher evaluations under the APPR; those are more sticky because of regulations related to Common Core and Race to the Top," she said.

BROSNAN'S TAKE

Former board member Dr. Kristen Brosnan is a lead scientist at General Electric Global Research in Schenectady. She and her husband moved their family to Niskayuna last August. She served on the BOE for almost two years.

Brosnan believes Dickerson is a likeable person, but, "I think the job is too big for her."

Brosnan was involved with the BOE in two evaluations of Dickerson's performance, one in 2012 and one in 2013. "In the first I called out her unwillingness to deal with difficult situations. She did not make any progress in that area. In my second year a lot more problems became apparent to me; a 'halo effect' with some teachers whom she had befriended.

"When the Algebra II students did not pass the [2013] Regents exams I asked the BOE to get the teacher help. At the next meeting Mary Dickerson brought a report on how great the teacher was.

"The report didn't address specifics. It wasn't constructive criticism feedback for this teacher. If you are a manager you evaluate your staff, both good and bad... to help them improve."

Brosnan was also concerned about Dickerson's relationship with a subordinate, whom she later married. "What if they broke up and someone sued the school district for sexual harassment? The unwillingness to see the potential for that danger made me see she is not a very good leader.

"LLCS needs a leader who makes good decisions in hiring and has high expectations. I saw not even average."

"I tried to talk to the faculty when I was there to get specific instances of why she is not a good leader. It took me almost a year to find out what was going on at that school. They are afraid of retaliation."

EVALUATIONS

"The last evaluation of her I did, for the 2012/13 school year, I would not vote to give her a raise or extend her contract," Brosnan said. "She could not do the job, could not deal with difficult people, is not a leader."

Dickerson's evaluations were destroyed following a Dec. 12, 2013 vote to do so by a majority of the BOE. Only the BOE president had signed them, rather than all members, as required.

Former BOE President Hallie Bond says, "One of the problems is there is a lot the school board knows but can't talk about or correct; the perception in town is the board is being mean to Mary.

"The previous board did not renew her contract; I'm very upset to hear the current board threw out her evaluations because of a technicality, under pressure from her lawyers; how is anybody to get any better if you don't take past performance into consideration?

"They have to start with a clean slate. The one thing the board did have was the five years of evaluations, and now they don't even have that."

TEACHERS' PERSPECTIVE

Teachers in general were loath to speak, and those who did so almost all asked for anonymity. One would only say, "I think all the teachers will be happy that you're [investigating]."

Another said, "I am so nervous, because many staff people have been hurt by Ms. Dickerson. She gets certain people on her list and she works to dismiss their validity as an educator or staff person.

"Staff morale is horrible. We're not heard at all when it comes to providing for the kids. There's no conversation about what matters."

In the past, this teacher said, board members sometimes attended faculty meetings. "It's like having a parent in the room, so she couldn't say, 'Oh, the teachers don't want to do that.' When a board member is not there she leaves no room for discussion."

Asked about Dickerson's leadership, this teacher said, "It's non-existent. She tries to divide the staff and leaves us floundering with these massive changes. We need a plan, so we're all moving in the same direction.

"She says let me know what you want, such as new technology. Each of us separately has to come up with a plan? There is no direction. She never talks about substance.”

Noting LLCS has only one administrator -- Dickerson -- this teacher added, "I think it's a huge job and she doesn't know how to prioritize."

A third teacher said of staff morale, "It's the worst I've ever seen it and I've seen it pretty bad. The last superintendent we sent a letter of no confidence to the BOE; this is worse."

Asked about Dickerson's leadership, this teacher said, "She doesn't have those skills."

FOR THE RECORD

Second grade teacher Nicole Meyette has no concerns about anonymity. "I think staff morale fluctuates," she said. "There are a lot of factors that play into it. The big umbrella is the APPR and all the state changes with Common Core."

Meyette says she is very comfortable going to Dickerson with questions or problems. "Ms. Dickerson and I disagree regularly, but can discuss it. Other teachers do not feel comfortable.

"I respect her as my boss until the day she disrespects me or doesn't treat me professionally. I am there to create professional, not personal, relationships."

Regarding Dickerson's leadership, Meyette says, "I wish the board would allow her to do her job better; she's in a very interesting situation in that the extension of her contract hasn't been decided, which prevents her from doing her job effectively.

"It impacts the faculty, staff, students and Mary Jo. She wears so many hats; she is the superintendent, the principal, she has so much going on, it's a tough job. Once that decision is made I think you will see a lot of changes for the good at the school."

Asked if she sees Dickerson as a strength or a weakness for the school, Meyette replied, "I don't see her as a weakness; she could be a better strength. She has taken the school in the direction it needs to go to survive."

TYRANT TEACHERS?

A retired teacher says part of the reason LLCS has not kept a superintendent is a cartel of teachers.

"Morale is poor. But it was the same during the entire time I taught there, due to the fact that every time a new superintendent came on there would be issues. People did not want any changes; if a superintendent tried to make changes he was bucked by the faculty and staff.

"A couple of teachers there believe they run the school. They torment anyone who attempts to be a leader. Also, there is still a force out there, that has retired, that is still running the school."

This teacher says at least eight LLCS District students are currently attending high school at Newcomb, two the children of a teacher who was let go, the others primarily because of low math Regents scores at LLCS.

“The teachers have to have help with this and help with that; someone else has to teach their students reading, teach them math.

“I feel they are unjustified in their issues against Mary Jo. She’s floundering and they’re not helping.”

Dickerson came to LLCS from Champlain Valley Educational Services BOCES, which voted to grant her tenure June 19, 2008, effective June 20, 2008. Oddly, the board’s very next action was to unanimously accept a letter of resignation from Dickerson, effective June 30, 2008.

crismeixner@gmail.com

     

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