BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — The community’s way of saying goodbye to interim Superintendent John Yagielski looked a lot different from the way it bid farewell to Susan Kay Salvaggio, the previous leader of the Niskayuna Central School District.
Salvaggio slipped from her post in April 2014 with a generous severance package and a conspicuous silence from the Board of Education, which was split over whether to let her go.
Yagielski, however, returned to retirement to the sound of applause.
At a Board of Education meeting May 26, Yagielski was surprised with citations for his service from State Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, and Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie. The community members, who crowded the District Office Board Room for a number of reasons, offered a standing ovation.
“I really walked into quite a hornet’s nest with the whole issue of education in the 110th Assembly District, but perhaps especially in Niskayuna,” Steck said at the meeting. “As John Yagielski became the superintendent, all of that calmed down.”
Yagielski, a former Shenendehowa superintendent who came out of retirement to take the interim position in Niskayuna, started his eventful year with the district by establishing a clear message: Students must come first. Community members disagreed about a lot of things (they had just recently, in 2013, voted down a budget that exceeded the tax cap, forcing austerity measures), but this was something all could agree on.
Along those lines, Yagielski led the Board of Education members in writing and establishing a code of conduct for meetings. He began meeting with a group of high school students at their request to hear their concerns. This past summer, he worked together with a committee to rebuild the district budget completely from scratch, resulting in a budget without any tax levy increase for 2015-2016.
That budget was enthusiastically embraced by voters, unlike the one proposed two years earlier. In fact, this May set a record for the smallest number of votes against the budget ever in the district.
“For me that is a real resounding measure of support from the community,” Yagielski said.
During a reception at Niskayuna High School where teachers, students, parents and staff wished Yagielski farewell, school social worker Allison Nunez said she hoped the approach Yagielski had taken would be embraced by his successor, Dr. Cosimo Tangorra, who will move into the superintendent’s office this month.
“It was very lateral, as opposed to top-down,” Nunez said.
Theresa Fitzmaurice, a music teacher at Craig Elementary School who has worked in the district since 1985, also attended the reception.
“I would say the thing about Mr. Yagielski is, by having him here, you realize how good things are supposed to be,” she said.
Fitzmaurice has a longer view than most of Yagielski’s approach and abilities as an interim superintendent. Her son, John, was a senior at Schenectady High School when Yagielski took the helm as interim superintendent of that district in 2010.
“My good fortune has doubled,” she said at the reception.
Board of Education President Pat Lanotte said even though she was excited for the next chapter in Niskayuna’s leadership, she was sad to see the interim leader leave the district.
“We owe a huge debt of gratitude to John Yagielski for focusing our district on students,” she said. “I’m fairly certain that will be his legacy, and we will never lose focus again.”
All the emotional farewells are a tiny bit premature. Yagielski plans to help the district establish a functional system of shared transportation to save time and money, a project he began months ago but which will take time to see all the way through.
“I believe so much in that shared service concept,” he said.
Senator Farley is also invested in making shared services a reality for the district, and together the two will work to secure funding to implement the system. Yagielski hopes various districts will come together to share the burden of maintenance and repairs, as well as less well-traveled school bus routes that cross district boundaries.
“You could share some of those large, expensive tools,” he said.
Though he’ll continue to help out around Niskayuna, Yagielski said he’s excited to have more time for his family.
He has a daughter in Rochester and a daughter, son, and five grandchildren in Buffalo.
“I missed things like grandparents’ day for their school,” he said, something he doesn’t expect to have to miss again once he returns to retirement.
After receiving citations from the two legislators at the Board of Education meeting in late May, Yagielski also protested a bit against the praise being heaped on him.
“To say, ‘John Yagielski, John Yagielski’ shortchanges all the contributions that have been made over the past year,” he said, listing off board members, parents, students and faculty as deserving recognition.
“I leave here with tremendously warm feelings about the district,” he said. “As good as we are, we need to be better and we’re going to be better.”