Due to the importance of this issue and in order to facilitate the communication of information for those unable to attend the Special BOE meeting held on November 13, the following summary has been prepared.
On Thursday, November 13, the Niskayuna Central School District Board of
Education held a special meeting at the request of Interim Superintendent John
Yagielski. The purpose of the meeting was to provide School Board and community
members with information related to a recent Internet article that questioned
the district’s college acceptance rates and raised concerns about High School
Principal John Rickert, who is a well-known sports agent.
There were three items on the agenda: 1. An update on the district’s efforts to secure accurate college acceptance data; 2.Information from the district’s counsel on the key legal considerations related to an employee with outside employment; and 3. A discussion between Mr. Rickert and the Board about how he serves as high school principal and also manages a business.
Mr. Yagielski acknowledged the uniqueness of the meeting, but said it was important to address it directly: "When issues of importance to our school community arise I believe we need to take the time to review them in a very open and transparent manner," he said.
The recent Internet article raised questions about Niskayuna High School
students’ rates of acceptance to a group of 30 colleges selected by the writer.
An acceptance rate of 49.72 percent from 2011 to 2014 cited in the article was
pulled from "Naviance," which relies on self-reporting of application outcomes
by students. The district initiated an effort to secure accurate acceptance data
by contacting college admissions offices directly.
In a short time frame, the district secured acceptance data from 18 of the 30 colleges. The high school counseling center identified more complete information on the other 12. This data revealed an overall acceptance rate of 71.9 percent to the 30 colleges. Of the 2,940 applications made to these 30 schools between 2011 and 2014, 2,114 were accepted.
Attorney Hank Sobota of the district’s law firm, Ferrara, Fiorenza, Larrison,
Barrett & Reitz, PC, addressed the Board. He said there nothing in state law
that precludes a school district employee from having outside employment.
Mr. Sobota discussed the district’s Code of Ethics (Board Policy No. 2160), which likewise does not prohibit the private employment or outside business interests of school district employees. The policy indicates that an outside interest is not permitted when it "creates a conflict with official duties." Mr. Sobota said he was not aware of any time when Mr. Rickert’s sports agent business activity had interfered with his duties as high school principal.
Mr. Sobota noted that Mr. Rickert is a member of the Niskayuna Administrators Association (NAA), which collectively bargains its contract agreements with the district. There is no so-called "exclusivity clause" in the NAA agreement that would prohibit members from engaging in outside work.
Such a clause would need to be bargained collectively – the district cannot unilaterally impose one on the employee group or any individual within a group. Mr. Sobota said that of the 150-plus school districts his firm represents, he is not aware of any collectively-bargained agreements with an exclusivity clause. No such clause exists in any of Niskayuna’s agreements with its employees.
In opening remarks to the Board, Mr. Rickert summarized a statement that he
had sent to the Board that contained information about: his commitment to the
high school and students; student achievement during his tenure; his work as an
instructional leader; and how he manages both roles. At the meeting, he answered
several questions posed by Board members.
Mr. Rickert identified several data points related to student achievement that indicated Niskayuna High School was a high-performing school – including the recent Newsweek ranking and graduation rates. He said these achievements do not belong to him alone – he credited the high school’s extraordinary staff, and cited examples of how he has been an engaged and committed instructional leader. Mr. Rickert’s written statement included specific instances describing how he has supported students and met immediate needs in a variety of situations, including during times that are not typically school hours. He attends school events on an average of three nights per week and occasionally works on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the year. He also noted that he has been rated "highly effective" in his evaluations as principal.
Mr. Rickert said that his staff conducts the day-to-day affairs of his sports agent business. He has a partner who is empowered to speak for him on all matters. Those affiliated with his business know that he is not available during the school day (7am-5pm) and that he does not engage in any activity related to the business during that time. "School comes first," Mr. Rickert said.
Interim Superintendent Yagielski noted that Mr. Rickert participated in the
meeting voluntarily, and that the district could not have required it. He
thanked him for having the discussion in public. Mr. Yagielski again stressed
that that the meeting was an effort to address an issue of community importance
in a direct and transparent manner.
Mr. Yagielski further offered, "If anyone has questions that you feel were not answered or addressed; or has statements that you wish to make; or, more importantly has any specific information that you believe we need to know, please send it to me marked CONFIDENTIAL."
Mr. Yagielski requested that information be provided within 30 days. He said he will review any information received and prepare a summary report to be shared with the Board and community no later than January 2015.