New Niskayuna superintendent missed ‘noise’ of hands-on education

Dr. Cosimo Tangorra, Jr. is announced as the new Niskayuna Schools Superintendent April 14, 2015. (Peter R. Barber/Gazette Photographer)Dr. Cosimo Tangorra, Jr. is announced as the new Niskayuna Schools Superintendent April 14, 2015. (Peter R. Barber/Gazette Photographer)

BY REBECCA ISENHART
Gazette Reporter

NISKAYUNA — Almost a year to the day after former Niskayuna Superintendent Susan Kay Salvaggio parted ways with the district, the school board appointed a new superintendent during a meeting at Birchwood Elementary School on Tuesday night.

Cosimo Tangorra Jr., 44, a Herkimer resident who currently serves as deputy commissioner of P-12 education for the state Education Department, has a long resume as a school superintendent. From July 2004 to July 2014, he served in the Oppenheim-Ephratah, Trumansberg, Ilion and Central Valley school districts. He also has experience as a principal, administrator and teacher.

Tangorra’s salary in his new position will be $186,000, a $23,000 raise from his rate at the state, which was $163,000 in 2014.

Tangorra said he sought the superintendent’s position because he missed interacting with students. During the first week of September last year, just a couple of months into his tenure as deputy commissioner, he heard something he hadn’t in many years: silence.

“I’m sitting in my office and I notice — no noise,” Tangorra recalled. There were no sports teams practicing outside his windows, no teachers rearranging desks or lockers creaking and slamming.

“That was the reason I became an educator in the first place,” he said. “I’m a practitioner more than anything else.”

Tangorra said he is excited to get to know the community. Demographically, Niskayuna is a departure from his past educational posts, with residents who are generally wealthier and live in suburban, rather than rural areas. However, he said he expects the role to be just as challenging.

Patty Ryan, a high school math teacher who also served on the interview committee, said the district is already experiencing a positive trajectory. She said during interviews, she looked for a candidate who would “just keep us going in the right direction.”

That’s not to suggest the selection committee was seeking out the status quo.

“Our reputation is the result of the relentless pursuit of improvement,” Board of Education President Pat Lanotte said at the event. She said the board chose Tangorra for his experience, student-focused attitude and willingness to set lofty goals for the future.

Parents Namita Modasra and Danielle Scolaro, both mothers of daughters with Down syndrome, were stakeholders in the interview process, meaning they had a smaller but significant role in weighing the three candidates for the job.

The two mothers were focused on finding a superintendent who would support inclusive policies for their children, a position that illustrates the breadth of priorities among Tangorra’s many interviewers.

In the end, both were satisfied.

“He definitely wants community input,” Scolaro said.

“What we saw in him was a strong leadership quality that came right through,” Modasra said. “He feels the school is already set up and has good things going,” she added.

Mark Treanor, director of student and staff support services for the district and former high school assistant principal, was one of the administrators who helped conduct the search and interview process.

“We’re pretty confident in the decision,” Treanor said during a press event the day of Tangorra’s appointment. “When you get a group of varied people from varied places coming to a consensus like that, that’s pretty impressive.

“We think we have the right guy,” he said.

Tangorra’s appointment marks the end of a contentious era in school district politics.

Salvaggio’s departure on April 15 of last year, called a “voluntary separation” by the Board of Education at the time, included a gag order that kept district officials from commenting on the specific reasons for her exit, as well as a $139,000 lump-sum payment for ending her contract 15 months early.

Niskayuna schools also struggled with budget deficits for several years, hitting an especially tough year in 2013-14 after voters rejected a budget that would have exceeded the property tax cap.

“We’re coming out of some difficult times,” Treanor said.

While the district conducted a search for a permanent superintendent, a familiar face in the Schenectady education circuit took the helm. John Yagielski, who led the Schenectady City School District on an interim basis for two years, was appointed in a unanimous vote on April 23, 2014.

Yagielski’s time in the district has seen a sort of reconciliation take place, as community members pushed for increased transparency. A group of parents and students even sought the opinion of the New York State Committee on Open Government in regard to Salvaggio’s abrupt separation.

Yagielski has fostered communication between the district and its residents by leading board members through the development of a code of conduct, shifting public comment from a podium to a literal seat at the table during Board of Education meetings and attending a monthly meeting with a group of students from Niskayuna High School.

“We’ve had a pretty good one as an interim,” Treanor said. “John Yagielski did a great job.”

Tangorra agreed, and said he planned to pay close attention to the work Yagielski had done in the past year.

He said he hoped to continue a dialogue with the interim superintendent even after he officially returns to retirement.

Tangorra will officially take his post on June 2.

This story originally appeared in The Daily Gazette.