By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — No one said the name “Susan Kay Salvaggio” at the first meeting of the Niskayuna Transparency Workgroup. But everyone understood Salvaggio, the former superintendent of schools who resigned under murky circumstances in April, was as responsible for the gathering as the conscientious students and parent who organized it.
When Salvaggio departed her post as Niskayuna’s superintendent of schools with a $139,000 lump-sum payment and a “goodwill clause” that limited any comments about the departure to a handful of pre-approved facts, plenty of Niskayuna residents were angry. The reaction was strong enough that Priti Irani, a mother to two sons in the district, was inspired to act.
“I’ve never been really involved in politics,” Irani said at the meeting. “I was taken aback how upset people were.”
The transparency workgroup is the result of a back-and-forth that ensued among Irani; her high school student son, Darius; and a friend of his, Samir Menon, who also felt strongly that they wanted to contribute to some sort of solution. The three petitioned the Committee on Open Government for an opinion on a number of details about how the Board of Education handled Salvaggio’s departure, including the goodwill clause, at a meeting that occurred with little notice, at an unusual time.
The three received an opinion from the committee in September that suggested the Board of Education was allowed to enter into a goodwill clause with Salvaggio, but may have violated the Open Meetings Law. The committee’s opinions are not legally binding, but they often serve as a starting place for productive discussion, so the three brought the letter before the Board of Education later that month. At the end of the presentation, board members encouraged the presenters to come up with a proposal — What would they like to see the board do next?
So Priti Irani and Niskayuna High School junior Noah Chaskin agreed to lead the Niskayuna Transparency Workgroup, a forum they hope will help heal the rifts that formed during the contentious decision to let Salvaggio depart.
Irani said she felt it was important not to let the disagreement fade without reconciling what happened, especially because the pattern she had seen at other districts where superintendents left under stressful circumstances worried her.
“Invariably, the result has been, the community gets upset and life goes on,” Irani said. “That, for me, is like teaching helplessness, which schools should not be the basis of.”
The organizers chose to compose the group of 12 members including students, school district staff and administrators, and community members. Attendees on the district payroll included interim Superintendent John Yagielski, district communications specialist Matt Leon, ninth-grade social studies teacher Peter Melito and Shelley Baldwin-Nye, principal at Glencliff Elementary School.
Three students — Chaskin, Darius Irani, and Matt Mizbani — are also on the committee, though Mizbani missed the first meeting.
In addition to Priti Irani, there were several community members enlisted to balance out the representatives. Ron Frank, a recent GE retiree whose two sons graduated from the district and whose wife teaches at Hillside Elementary, acted as a facilitator. Jaqueline Gallo, a parent, co-president of the high school PTO and frequent substitute teacher in the district, also lent her opinion, as did Matt Cutler, rabbi at Congregation Gates of Heaven.
Board of Education President Pat Lanotte rounded out the dozen.
Though the impetus for the new workgroup was clear, its specific purpose was not immediately obvious. It was Cutler who blurted out the question, after about 20 minutes of introductions and cerebral discussion about the meaning of the word “transparency.”
“I’ve got to ask a really stupid, basic question: What are we doing here?” Cutler said, startling a laugh out of the slightly reticent group. After that, everyone started to loosen up, and the discussion became more productive.
It was a fair question, given that the responsibility for transparency seems to be the job of the school board. But even Lanotte acknowledged discussion in a less-formal setting would be useful.
“I thought we were being transparent,” Lanotte said. “The whole goal in my mind is the Board of Education, in particular, to have policies and procedures in place so we can be more open.”
But after the Salvaggio uproar, people started to ask for more communication, leaving Lanotte to ask for suggestions.
Though it took place in the same room as most board meetings, the transparency group conducted itself less formally. The result was cerebral, almost Socratic, as members asked questions of one another and pondered abstract concepts such as the true meaning of transparency.
But its ultimate goal is to inspire real action, and by the end of the first meeting, the group had settled on a list of goals. They included things like understanding the district’s vision and seeking out clear benchmarks of progress, affirming community trust, identifying threats to transparency, and helping people understand constraints on transparency for the district, such as personnel issues, which are private. The full list of goals can be found at the group’s website, tinyurl.com/niskycitizen.
Meetings are open to all community members, and the next one will take place from 7-9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 5, in the district board room.