The Greek Myths of Clarkstown

No one can trace the origins of the classic Greek myths.  They originated as stories told from one person to another for the purpose of reinforcing a particular belief or set of beliefs.  Clarkstown has its own “Greek” myths, which relate to Dr. Keller-Cogan’s time at the Greece Central School District before coming to Clarkstown.  The origins of these stories also cannot be traced, yet are told over and over to reinforce the belief that Dr. Keller-Cogan destroyed Greece before coming to Clarkstown in order to wreak more destruction.

Though, no one has called her Dr. KRAKEN-Cogan…yet…
To hear the mythical narratives, Greece was a district in upstate New York filled with happy people without a care in the world.  Then, Dr. Keller-Cogan rose to Superintendent, and through…well, depending on the narrator…

A)    …”utter incompetence”…
B)    …”sheer arrogance”…
C)    …”pure malice”…

…she did bring upon the district a great strife, with massive infrastructure bonds, fiscal mismanagement, EEOC complaints, lawsuits, divisiveness and all kinds of mean, nasty things.  Here’s just one example (as written) of the various Greek myths that are circulating in the comments sections of online news reports:

She has been nothing but decisive the moment she was hired, or should i say dumped on us from Greece. Check out Board to Fire Chief.pdf.  Seems like we are not the first to have issues with her. I have said it before and I will say it again, she is not a good manager and thus not right for the job.”

Keep in mind that these Greek myths continue to this day – that post (where I’m sure he meant “divisive”, not “decisive”) was made last month!  By all means, take a look at that link in the post, because it is usually the link provided to support all the Clarkstown Greek myths.  Really, take a look at that article.  Now, the chronology of events that led up to that evening of January 20, 2006 are not as exciting as the Clarkstown Greek myths, but it does truly serve as a cautionary tale of what happens when a slim majority of a Board takes actions while conducting entire debates in private and withholding information from the public. 

It’s a safe bet that the narrators of the Clarkstown Greek myths never read the second page in that link.  If they had, they would notice that Dr. Keller-Cogan was the Greece Superintendent of Schools for less than three months when the Board - by a commanding 5-4 majority that appears to have been the margin in all their actions - voted to suspend her.  Since this was during the summer break, she was actually on the job for a mere 45 days, and she was suspended just five days into the new school year.  It is simply not possible, even if one were the Kraken, to wreak that kind of havoc in so short a time.

That’s not even enough time to break in her office chair…

So, what really happened in Greece?

In 1999/2000, the Greece Central School District was the eighth largest non-city district by student enrollment (it is now third), the Superintendent was Steven Walts, and Dr. Keller-Cogan was an assistant superintendent.  That year, Mr. Walts helped drive the effort for a massive capital improvement project that would encompass every building in the district, a scenario similar to the 2009 Clarkstown Infrastructure Bond proposal.  The work in both proposals was extensively researched for more than a year, and each was scaled back in scope before being put to a public vote.  Like Clarkstown, Greece’s $119.5MM bond was the largest of its time.  Unlike Clarkstown, however, the state would reimburse 80% of the costs of the Greece project, not the 55% in Clarkstown.  Also unlike Clarkstown, the voters of Greece approved the bond.

Moving now to 2004, work approved by the bond is well underway, and Dr. Keller-Cogan has been promoted to Deputy Superintendent for Student Learning and Accountability, still reporting to Mr. Walts.  In April 2005, Mr. Walts announced he would depart the Greece CSD in June for a similar post in Virginia. 

At about the same time, there is much discord in Greece.  People are outraged at the “overspending” in their $70MM tax levy (it was a $140MM budget, but half their operating funds come from the state…to this day).  It is worth noting that a large segment of the population was employed by Eastman-Kodak…or I should say, were formerly employed by Eastman-Kodak.

It’s been a rough stretch for Kodak

The people of Greece elected tough fiscal conservatives who promised transparency and accountability, and secured a slim majority in the 2005 elections.  However, before the newly elected Board members took office, the existing Board tapped Dr. Keller-Cogan to replace the departing Superintendent.  Notably, prior to becoming the newly elected President of the Board of Education, Mr. Ken Walsh had been rejected – twice – for the position of Assistant Superintendent in the Greece CSD.  Let the pandemonium begin!

Supporters of the new Board of Education President, we surmise…

EEOC Complaints, Lawsuits and the Firing…erm…Resignation:
Many people were upset that the prior Board decided on the Superintendent as some members were on their way off the Board.  Additionally, in the summer of 2005 the district was blind-sided by the revelation that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruled that complaints of age discrimination and failure to accommodate disabilities had merit.  Five teachers filed these complaints a year and a half earlier (that’s early 2004).

In September 2005, the new 5-4 Board majority suspended Dr. Keller-Cogan and two other administrators and actually banned them from district property while a three-week review was conducted, ostensibly to prevent interference with the review.  Three weeks turned into three months, with the Board disclosing no conclusion of wrongdoing or providing any indication of what actions they were taking.  In October 2005, the EEOC gave four of the five teachers a notice of right to sue the district because the Board refused to resolve the disputes through mediation within the required time period.  According to Board President Ken Walsh at the time, the Board decided not to proceed with mediation until its own investigation was complete.

The district’s attorneys hired Berry Consulting Services to conduct this investigation.  The Greece BoE received the results of the investigation, dubbed The Berry Report, on Dec. 21, 2005.  They refused repeated requests, including FOIL requests, to release the report or a summary of its conclusions to the public.  They could not have been pleased with the report or the legal advice they were receiving, as they fired the law firm that hired the independent evaluators.  With a new law firm, the Board majority pursued an apparently predetermined goal to fire Dr. Keller-Cogan as Superintendent.  When no basis could be found for firing her, they instead negotiated her resignation because, as quoted in their press release, they could not achieve a “mutually supportive relationship between the Board of Education and the Superintendent of Schools”.

Goodness knows they tried to give her enough chances to fit in…

Once the Berry Report was finally released in 2009, one former member of that 5-4 majority said that in seeking Keller-Cogan’s resignation “the Berry Report, in itself, while relevant, actually played a very minor role in that decision.”  He did not, however, say what did play a role in that decision.  On the other hand, the President of the Board, Ken Walsh, said at the time of the 2006 vote that the Board’s decision was “a direct result of our understanding of the EEOC determinations, the Berry Report, and advice from counsel.” 

Apparently, there was some confusion in their understanding…    

The Aftermath:
Upon acceptance of her resignation, the Greece BoE issued this (under) statement: “Dr. Keller-Cogan helped to lead the improvement of instructional programs, services and programs for students with special needs, the quality of our school facilities and ultimately, unprecedented improvement in student achievement results.”

In fact, among other things, Dr. Keller-Cogan was charged to work with the Teachers’ union to develop the teacher evaluation and improvement system.  The Board gave the impression that this system, itself, was the entire basis of the EEOC complaints.  Yet the Berry Report clearly said that this teacher evaluation and review process was "pedagogically valid and fair in its design" and “may be regarded as a model to be replicated”.  It went on to say: “Many see this very rigorous system of instructional analysis and teacher accountability as moving the District forward.”  With regards to the five individuals in question, the report found that the evaluations in all cases were valid and that there was no evidence of most of the teachers’ charges.  It did conclude, in four cases, there were some actions taken by immediate supervisors that could be viewed as treating those teachers “unfairly”. 

One could see that the Berry Report would have had, indeed, a very minor role in the decision to oust Dr. Keller-Cogan, since it completely exonerates and praises the system that she developed

So what about those EEOC complaints?  Again, while the EEOC found merit in four of the complaints, it pursued none.  In the source link of the Clarkstown Greek myths, these four teachers filed individual lawsuits against the district the week before the Board vote against Dr. Keller-Cogan.  The fifth, whose claims the EEOC did not support, made other allegations that compelled the EEOC to refer the case to the Justice Department, a move her lawyer characterized as “an extremely rare step.”  Such a step did not mean the allegations were valid, of course, and the Justice Department declined to take action.  She later filed her own lawsuit.  In response, the Greece Teachers Association began arguing against the evaluation system that they actively worked to develop

None of the lawsuits apparently had a specific complaint against Dr. Keller-Cogan, and she wasn’t even named in the largest one.  In fact, Dr. Keller-Cogan had never met three of the teachers in question and had met the other two only incidentally.  By December 2008, all the lawsuits were settled.  Three lawsuits by the teachers who retired in 2004 were settled for a total of $125,000.  The fourth settled for $235,000 and the last settled for an estimated $140,000.  These two teachers returned to work for the district, and retired this year.  The settlements were mostly for lost wages and other compensation.  It was the Board’s decision to reject mediation in 2005 that resulted in these costly settlements in 2008. 

Good call, eh?

Fiscal Mismanagement
The Office of New York State Comptroller performed an audit of the Greece CSD’s internal financial controls from 2005-2007 and issued its report in February 2008.  It condemned the financial management of the Greece capital improvement project under Steven Walts and blasted the Board of Education for its lax oversight. The audit determined that the Greece Boards improperly gave Walts a “blank check” to use $2,497,487 in unauthorized general funds to complete the capital project, allowed Walts to accept $25,000 for vacation days in a fiscal year during which he was employed for one week, and generally failed to monitor project and operational expenses.  The Board hired its own auditing firm, and in December 2008 they also blasted the Board and largely agreed with the state report.  Dr. Keller-Cogan is not named in either of these audits. 

There is absolutely nothing to indicate any wrongdoing by Dr. Keller-Cogan through the entire real story of Greece.  Indeed, every indication is that the programs under her direction in the school district were hugely successful and thoroughly validated. 

In reviewing the reality of the history in Greece, we find:
  • Dr. Keller-Cogan’s programs were independently found to be valid, effective and models to be replicated.
  • The Board fired a law firm well versed in educational law to hire another law firm specifically to find cause to fire Dr. Keller-Cogan.
  • Her qualifications and record of accomplishment withstood this serious and no doubt biased scrutiny.
  • The Board’s efforts to remove her were entirely political and without merit.
  • The Board basis to demand her resignation was simply their refusal to work with her.
  • The Board withheld information, paid for by the public, which utterly refuted their efforts.
  • The Board clearly had no criteria to assess her performance or a successor.  The lack of focus and direction from the Board may be why Greece is on its sixth Superintendent since January 2005.
  • The Board’s decisions prevented a timely and certainly less expensive resolution to the EEOC complaints.
  • The Board has consistently failed its duty to provide effective fiscal oversight of the district.
In reviewing the Clarkstown Greek myths, we find one simplistic point:

"We don't like her."

The realities offer many lessons.  Information should be shared in any way possible with the public.  Ideas should be discussed openly with the goal finding commonalities to bridge across differences.  Personal issues have no place in such discussions.  Board members must focus on their role and remember that each must respond to the entire district, not merely their own neighborhoods or interests.  Parents and residents must take an active interest in the entire district, not merely their own schools.  Not everyone will be happy about everything, but maybe all of us can be satisfied with most things.

There's a little of this in all of us.

These lessons may be summed up by the blog that was largely the voice of the anti-Keller-Cogan forces in Greece in 2005/2006.  In July 2010, they wrote of Dr. Keller-Cogan:
Today, it appears she has really settled into her new school community. Her most recent budget got passed easily (as have most since her move there) when 69% of registered voters supported it by a two to one margin. Also, her teacher's union just settled a new 5 yr. contract that agrees to an 18 month pay freeze during these times of economic uncertainty. Her paycheck totals $225,000/yr. Looks like it was Greece's loss after all.

The Clarkstown Greek myths are totally busted.  When the realities are examined, one must wonder why anyone would want to compare the current environment in our district to those furious days in Greece.  One must hope that the residents of Clarkstown learn from that history and avoid falling into our own Greek tragedy.

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