BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Cosimo Tangorra has spent his summer acclimating to his new position as superintendent of the Niskayuna Central School District.
Key among his orientation activities has been a series of “Listening and Learning Tour” stops at various times and locations around town. The meetings were designed as conversations where the new superintendent would be the quietest in the group.
During a recent meeting at the Niskayuna library, Tangorra took notes and nodded attentively while a half-dozen community members with a variety of interests and past experiences wandered from topic to topic for more than an hour. They touched on class size, state testing and the movement to opt out of those tests; they voiced concerns about pay for athletic coaches; and they asked questions about new roles formed during recent district restructuring.
The discussion hit its stride when the group began to go back and forth with their concerns about the quality of the district’s food service. The energetic discussion encompassed a variety of perspectives, and information flowed from community to superintendent and back again.
“This is the first time I’ve worked in a district that didn’t take advantage of the federal funding,” Tangorra said.
Niskayuna refused federal assistance with school meals in order to escape strict meal guidelines that went into effect in January 2013. The guidelines, according to the school’s website, led to students buying fewer meals and more food wasted in the cafeteria.
However, letting go of the federal guidelines means the Niskayuna cafeteria can sell unhealthy snacks alongside the fruits, grains, and proteins its workers strive to include in daily menu items.
Diane Hartig, a parent and volunteer in the district who has been involved with monitoring lunch and recess activities, said she’s seen children purchasing unhealthy snacks and throwing out healthy food.
“I feel like our students are being exploited, really,” she said.
“They’re not making good choices and we’re not doing our job to help them,” added Molly Grygiel, a rowing coach for Niskayuna. She suggested labeling foods and educating students to help them make informed decisions about what to eat. Currently, she said, nutrition information for daily lunch offerings are not easily available.
Elizabeth Park, a community member who calls herself an “old mom” with an interest in the district, said she hoped the schools would follow the lead of the local senior center, which recently worked to revamp its offerings.
“If you don’t eat healthy meals, your brain doesn’t work,” she said.
Tangorra took notes on a pad and promised to call the food services coordinator for the school district.
“We’re going to have a conversation this afternoon,” he said.
In addition to listening and learning from parents, as the series’ name promised, Tangorra also offered insight into his perspective. His resume includes work with less-affluent school districts and, later, with the state education department.
“Those of you who have never lived or worked anywhere else have no idea how fortunate you are,” he said. “It’s almost foreign to me.”
It may be foreign now, but if the conversations between superintendent and community are any indication, the district’s operations will soon be second nature to him.