2013-05-29 / Schools

Putnam Valley District Faces Leadership Vacuum at Critical Time

By Annie Chesnut

Superintendent Barbara Nuzzi at her desk in the Putnam Valley District Office.. 
Annie Chesnut Superintendent Barbara Nuzzi at her desk in the Putnam Valley District Office.. Annie Chesnut Putnam Valley’s May 21 school board election results have some residents concerned about the future. In part that’s because continuity seems to have been lost when incumbent Joe Ferraro was beaten by a retired Putnam Valley teacher and former teachers’ union representative, Ralph Smith. But there’s much more to the story.

Superintendent Resigns

At the end of April, district stakeholders received an unexpected letter from the district’s superintendent, Dr. Barbara Nuzzi, announcing her appointment to the superintendent’s position in the Westchester community of Tuckahoe, effective August 1.

The announcement came at a time when the district was already dealing with the departure of the longtime Elementary School principal, Jamie Edelman. In addition, when Nuzzi assumed the post of superintendent, she eliminated/absorbed her own previous position of Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Personnel, and the only other Assistant Superintendent in the central office is Ronnie Stowell an interim finance person.

Putnam Valley marked Memorial Day with a parade and the laying of wreaths at several locations. Here, Boy Scouts march during the parade. 
Janette Yetter Putnam Valley marked Memorial Day with a parade and the laying of wreaths at several locations. Here, Boy Scouts march during the parade. Janette Yetter That could leave the district without any significant “overlap” when the 2013-14 school year starts in September.

Putnam Valley has a checkered history when it comes to leadership. While the Middle and Elementary Schools have remained relatively stable, the High School has gone through a series of principals in the 13 years since its opening in 2000—four in all. The Athletic Director position is another area in which it’s been difficult to find a long-term solution. And as for superintendents, Maryanne Doyle was in the position when the high school opened in 2000. She was followed by Robert Pauline, a high-profile interim; Gary Tutty, who served for about 5 years; and Marc Space. Nuzzi took over two years ago, upon Space’s departure.

The PCN&R spoke with stakeholders and Nuzzi to find out more.

Nuzzi’s Legacy

Nuzzi, previously known as Dr. Fuchs, has served for the past nine years in two positions, as Assistant Superintendent under Tutty and Space, and as Superintendent when Space left the district. She currently earns a $221,500 salary, the same amount she earned a year earlier.

More so than her recent predecessors, Nuzzi leaves behind a body of measurable accomplishments in the suburban-rural district that serves 1,800 students in three buildings. In fact, measurability is one of the aspects that Nuzzi seems to find most important.

Nuzzi told the PCN&R that the pieces of her legacy about which she is most proud include: Increased accountability; implementation and continual updating of curriculum mapping from grades K through 12; warehousing of data about student achievement so that teachers and administrators can identify areas that need work; implementation and continuing success of the 1:1 Laptop Program; a new teacher evaluation process, to improve both teacher performance and accountability; improvements in communications aimed in part at “getting rid of the rumor mill;” fiscally conservative budgeting that preserves the key aspects of the district’s educational program while being mindful of taxpayers, including a year-round Advisory Committee of 25 parents, administrators, and other community leaders.

When her roles combined, Nuzzi had to “turn everything back over to the principals,” which now concerns her. “You need somebody to oversee the K-to-12 curriculum,” she said “…I want it to continue, and I really do believe we need to bring back that position.”

Board President Speaks

In a conversation with the PCN&R, board president Valerie Fitzgerald confirmed that Nuzzi’s departure was a surprise. “None of us expected it,” she said, but “it presented us with an opportunity to look at everything” organizationally, which was something the board was hoping to do anyway.

Fitzgerald said finding an interim superintendent was the obvious short-term choice and that process is ongoing. Streamlining and automation of some central office tasks are also part of the plan.

She confirmed that while Jamie Edelman’s departure was a surprise, the district has already started interviewing for the Elementary School principal’s position and will fill it soon, adding that Edelman “will be sorely missed.”

What Teachers Say

We asked if Putnam Valley’s teachers embraced the initial changes she proposed on curriculum mapping and other innovations. Nuzzi responded, “Not at first, but I think… definitely the buy-in was there as it was moving along.”

The PCN&R reached out to the Putnam Valley Federation of Teachers, and spoke briefly with union president Gerry Carlin. Initially the group declined to comment on Nuzzi’s legacy until after the May 21 budget vote, but on May 25 Carlin issued a statement to us that reads in part:

As an employee of Putnam Valley for over 25 years, I have seen more than my share of change. We seem to go through administrators like kids go through cell phones. The revolving door of administrators is more than a little bothersome and alarming. ....

Whenever the inevitable administrative change comes down the pike we are likely to hear the saying “change is good.” I don’t believe that for an instant. Change, when necessary, is good, but change for the sake of change? Not so much.

We know that kids thrive best in an environment of stability. The same holds true for school districts. Stability is necessary for forward progress, especially with the sweeping changes in education that we are encountering as well as the budgetary constraints we now need to adhere to. We need clearly defined, obtainable goals with structures and procedures in place in order to reach these goals. It is so much easier to succeed if you have stability with your leadership.

Change is good? Not really. We are clamoring for stability!

Leadership Vacuum?

The PCN&R learned from Board President Fitzgerald that Stowell would remain in her finance position until at least January of 2014. Fitzgerald added that Stowell, who lives in Putnam Valley and whose husband has worked in the district, is very knowledgeable.

Fitzgerald was very clear in emphasizing that “the Board is looking at this as an opportunity to move forward.” Still, the number of personnel coming and going calls into question both the selection process itself and the abilities of the district leadership.

The Tuckahoe district is smaller than Putnam Valley, with 1,100 students. “It reminds me of Putnam Valley, at least in terms of the curriculum piece, when I took over nine years ago,” Nuzzi said. “They are in need an educational leader,” to help develop K-12 curriculum, she added.

As for Nuzzi, she says she has very mixed feelings about her latest move: “Putnam Valley is always going to remain close to my heart,” she reflected; “It’s bittersweet.”

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