LAKE GEORGE — Eliminating the high school vice principal position was billed as a student-centered decision. Students at the school board meeting Tuesday night said it was anything but that.
More than half of the students in the junior class signed a petition to save Cody Conley’s job, and a handful of them spoke passionately in an overcrowded meeting held in the school library.
Jack Mellon, the junior class vice president and representative of student council, spoke first.
“They are eliminating a safety-based position for a curriculum-based position. A high level of education is obviously important, but Lake George parents will agree that our safety is monumentally more so,” Mellon said to a roomful of more than 100 people. “We as students feel that we can safely walk into school every day with the vice principal dedicated to the safety of all students.”
“If your ultimate goal is to ‘raise the bar,’ why would we remove a position that is vital to our success?” Mellon said.
Applause followed his remarks and followed numerous other comments that opposed the decision to cut the Conley’s position at the end of the school year and add an interim K-12 curriculum and student support services position.
“The superintendent and board did not ask us for our input. That takes us back,” Mellon said.
Bullying, drug use, sexting and dropping out were a few of the problems that were mentioned by the crowd that Conley handles. They expressed fears those problems will not be addressed if he leaves.
Audience members questioned whether the board and superintendent Lynne Rutnik have their best interests in mind.
Jennifer Spath, a Lake George parent, said the emails she received announcing Conley’s dismissal in January were “disappointing at best.”
“Claims that the decision was student-centered and derived from discussions with stakeholders as the only means of meeting demands of the strategic plan, I find vaguely unsubstantiated … my better judgment may have failed me when I personally voted for several of our current members of this board, believing that they would uphold the values and best interest of students and school community,” Spath said.
Melissa Seale, a mother and psychiatric nurse practitioner specializing in child and adolescent psychiatry at Glens Falls Hospital, said she sees numerous students from Lake George High School who suffer with mental illness, trauma histories and drug abuse.
“There’s one name I hear often in my sessions, and that’s Mr. Conley. He’s there to comfort them, to help them, to listen to them. And I can tell you he’s made a world of difference for those kids,” Seale said.
But it was the students’ speeches that caused Conley to tear up.
Junior Jonathan Marchello said it if weren’t for Conley he wasn’t sure where he’d be.
“I didn’t take school seriously starting in seventh grade ... I gave up on myself, but he never did. And it isn’t only me that he’s helped. This isn’t just a job to him,” Marchello said.
After the hearing, Conley said he didn’t want to comment.
“I love this place,” he said.
Conley has been in charge of the bullying and wellness and safety committee, as well as disciplinary tasks, since 2010. Those duties will be reassigned, Rutnik said.
The meeting ended abruptly.
The public comment portion of school board meetings usually lasts 15 minutes, but after 45 minutes of pleas to the board and with numerous audience members still unheard, board President Timothy Collins cut the meeting off and adjourned.
Board member Thomas Seguljic asked to continue listening to the audience, but Collins said no.
Once the meeting ended, numerous students and residents hugged Conley.
Rutnik has stated that the decision to cut the position was made based upon the goals of the strategic plan, which called for a more in-depth focus on curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade.
The district will save about $40,000 with the change, she said.
“I considered numerous other options before making my final recommendation to the Board of Education,” Rutnik said in an email Wednesday.
Comments regarding student safety and the rise and prevalence of mental illness and drug use in the district surprised her, she said.
“If the district was experiencing issues at the level indicated last night, the data would reflect that, and it doesn’t. Lake George Junior-Senior High School has a safe learning environment, and students in need have every service available to them,” she said.
Although the decision to cut the position has been announced, a resolution still needs to be passed by the school board to make it official.
The board is reviewing the feedback from Tuesday night’s meeting and the Feb. 9 workshop.
“We are all listening and reflecting before a final decision is confirmed,” Rutnik said.