Thursday, March 20, 2008
Students, faculty, alumni and parents picket Tuesday outside St. Mary’s School for the Deaf, their only recourse because they are barred from meetings of the board that runs the educational facility on Main Street.
Parents and staff will air their concerns at the St. Mary’s School for the Deaf board meeting this afternoon — by picketing with placards outside the front entrance of the Main Street school.
That’s the closest they are likely to get to the board meeting, since they are not allowed in.
Along with 10 other such schools serving the blind and deaf in New York State, St. Mary’s is state-funded but is run as a nonprofit private institution. Decades ago, the State Legislature exempted such schools from the state’s Freedom of Information Law.
That means St. Mary’s enjoys the funding of a public school and the shroud from public scrutiny of a private school.
Like any public school, St. Mary’s gets nearly all its money from taxpayers, in this case about $11.65 million annually.
But unlike public schools, St. Mary’s conducts all its business out of public view. Among actions the board has taken in recent years behind closed doors:
• Extending the superintendent’s contract, with an immediate 10 percent pay hike to $159,000 this year, as well as a car, lifetime health coverage and a six-month consultant stint upon retirement.
• Hiring the current superintendent’s son as a teacher. A previous superintendent’s wife and daughter had been hired to oversee the school’s video repository.
• Enacting a policy putting more authority in the hands of the board’s executive committee, while, at the same time, making it more difficult for employees to bring concerns to individual board members.
• Considering removal of two members — including a nun who had worked at the school for 44 years — from the board for talking to employees. The motion was on the agenda but never brought to a vote.
The school’s board meetings are closed. No parents, staff or students are allowed in. The 15-member board is not required to release minutes from its meetings or even to tell what was voted on.
What’s more, the board basically appoints itself. When a member leaves, the board appoints a replacement. Recently, for example, attorney John P. DePaolo, the son of board Chairman Joseph S. DePaolo, was appointed to a three-year term.
With parents, students and staff concerned about recent decisions by the school’s superintendent, William P. Johnson — including staff reassignments and the dismissal of a popular math teacher — there have been requests for open board meetings.
“It’s a huge disservice to the board as well as the parents and staff that they cannot attend meetings,” parent Jane Wilkes said during a meeting parents had with school officials.
Some employees agree. “CSEA supports having open board of trustee meetings and direct access or communication with members of the board of trustees if we feel Superintendent Dr. Johnson is ignoring or neglecting our concerns,” Local 891, Civil Service Employees Association, wrote to the board.
Board chairman DePaolo said the board has considered opening its meetings but has consistently rejected the idea.
“We have discussed it many times and decided to keep our meetings closed,” he said.
But at least one board member — Assemblyman Sam Hoyt — says he wants the meetings open.
“While it may be statutorily or legally a private school, in essence it is a public school, with large public funding. The parents and taxpayers ought to have access to what is going on at the meetings,” Hoyt said.
As an assemblyman, he could propose legislation requiring St. Mary’s to open its meetings, but he would prefer not to.
“I’d rather we make a decision as a board [to open the meetings],” Hoyt said.
St. Mary’s finances are also exempt from public scrutiny. Not even the state Education Department knows exactly who’s on the payroll or how much each employee earns.
The state spends about $111 million on all the schools for the deaf and blind in New York State but only loosely oversees how the money is spent. Each school is required to submit an annual report to the state detailing spending by category, rather than providing the specifics that public schools are required to provide.
The most recent financial statement St. Mary’s submitted to the state — for 2006-07 — shows 37 teachers making a total of $3.1 million and 20 teacher’s aides making $765,437. State aid to the school, which serves 130 students — including 35 residential students — was $11.65 million that year.
The statement does not list all employees. It does not, for example, show Johnson’s son was hired part time last year and full time this school year.
But it does state that Superintendent Johnson was paid $145,000 in 2006-07.
His salary jumped to $159,000 this school year after the board, at a closed-door meeting, extended his contract until September 2009, when he plans to retire.
That contract says Johnson could receive another merit raise next year. It also allows him, upon retiring, to work as a consultant for six months — at his full rate of pay — training a new superintendent.
Prior to retirement, Johnson gets a car and seven weeks’ vacation. Upon retirement, he gets lifetime health insurance.
His contract is not public information, but The Buffalo News obtained a copy of it.
Beyond the money the school gets from the state, St. Mary’s also has a foundation that raises money for expenses the state doesn’t cover.
The Foundation for Deaf Education is not required to detail its finances. However, as a nonprofit, it must, like the school itself, file federal tax reports.
The foundation raised about $26,000 last year, had net assets of more than $900,000 and gave the school $147,356 last year for the purpose of “education,” according to the report. Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News
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The following is an on the ground report from Dean DeRusso, Deaf Systems Advocate at the Regional Center for Independent Living out of Rochester, NY:
Anita Cameron, Frank Kimmes and I were there. Yesterday from 3 to 5 pm. They need people wearing white and supporting them with funds to continue their work.
Based on my understanding from speaking with staff, people and students, the students were tired of the system being changed for worst than ever.
For one, they were given an Athetic Director who they do not want and can not communicate with them. They were given new teachers who they claim was not certificated and did not know how to communicate the resources to them. They even claimed that one of the teacher played Chess in the class rather than teach them anything.
This teacher Nettie did not do any of above, she gave them full lecture in ASL helping them. She even brought visual aids of resources to classrooms to help them understand math better than ever in their lifes. She gave them all education they needed. They can not figure why the teacher was fired. And, they still do not understand why they were given an Athetic Director who can not sign or communicate with them.
I spoke with some people about the Dr. Johnson of St. Mary School for the Deaf wants to hire staff and board officers who will not speak up to him. That's the only reason they suspect that he requested that this teacher was released was because she can speak up to him. Nettie had a strong relationship with the students and she would always stand for the students and it appears that he did not appricate that.
The students are going to fight. And from an Advocate point of view it's sad that the newspapers reporters did not contact any deaf people while they were interviewing. They are getting information from the union or hearing people who are in favor of the students.
More information about it can be found below:
St. Mary’s School for the Deaf board keeps its meetings closed
By Mary B. Pasciak and Susan Schulman
Updated: 03/19/08 9:10 AM
Deaf Systems Advocate
Regional Center for Independent Living
Advocacy and Independent Living Services for Individuals
497 State Street
Rochester, NY 14608
Sorenson VP: 585 546-7598
Voice Callers 1: (877) 467-4877 ext 07598
Voice Callers 2: 866-327-8877 ext 585.546.7598
TTY: (585) 697-1604
Below is an email from Tom Coughlin:
Hello Millie and friends: thanks for sending me news about SMSD. It is
shocking to hear about Mr. Johnson not showing respect to our beloved
Sisters. Please see the attached Open Letter I have written to our
Alumni. Please share this letter with all who you know via your email
as I do not have many of their email address. the more this letter is
circulated the better we can defend our Sisters. We must defend Sister
Virginia and Sister Loretta. Sr. Mary Delaney would have done the
same. Fr. Tom C.
Online articles about this controversy are availabe on the following websites: