By Anindita Dasgupta
First they banded together to help renovate the building at 111 Columbia St. Then they filed a lawsuit against the city’s Department of Education and state Board of Regents to keep a charter school from encroaching on their space and possibly draining the resources of their school. Now the once-unified parent body at the New Explorations into Science Technologies and Math, or NEST for short, are turning on each other as a new principal is making some changes.
After a chaotic year of lawsuits and a few victories, NEST parents prepared for a year of transition with a new administration. Olga Livanis replaced former principal Celenia Chevere, who retired after D.O.E. charges of misconduct and insubordination were dropped. However, with this new administration comes a new way of running NEST, and with that comes yet another battle for NEST parents. Now, the once-tight community of parents has split, resulting in a rather messy resignation of the nine members of their Parent-Teacher Association’s executive committee, a special audit of the P.T.A.’s finances and a “cooling-off period” mandated by Principal Livanis before parents officially assemble again.
Lou Gasco, the former P.T.A. executive vice president, said that NEST parents are divided between those who oppose the changes and the atmosphere said to be brought on by the new administration; those who sympathize with them; and those who are for the most part unaffected by the changes and haven’t decided. He said that the executive committee heard from many middle and upper school parents upset by changes in scheduling, and that the executive committee tried to work with the administration to deal with these concerns.
“It was a total shutdown of communication and we were just becoming very ineffective,” Gasco said. “Having personally witnessed and experienced her ignorance and disrespect for the valid concerns of the parents, Olga has lost my respect as the interim acting principal of NEST.”
Executive committee members announced their resignation at a P.T.A. meeting on Oct. 26. The announcement led to a few parents applauding, which in turn sparked more arguments among the parents. In a letter to parents, they explained their resignations by citing the unwillingness of the new administration to communicate with them on the many challenges that arose this year.
“The new administration refuses to meet with the P.T.A. executive committee and does not respond to any of our e-mails or phone calls,” they wrote. “We hope our resignations will encourage parents to run for the executive committee positions and that they will be parents with whom the new administration will meet, communicate and work with on a regular basis to repair the damage that has been done to the students and the culture of our school.”
During the meeting, a few eighth-grade students presented essays explaining their views of the new administration and how some students were unhappy with the current state of the school. Tempers flared as parents accused each other and teachers of forcing the children to write the essays. Livanis, who was not on site, called the police to break up the meeting after hearing that an argument between parents had turned physical in the lobby. Due to a change in the date of the meeting, the P.T.A. allegedly did not have a permit to assemble. Police herded parents out of the building, but more heated arguments continued between parents in the school parking lot.
In response to the meeting’s rather disastrous ending, in an e-mail to parents, Livanis called for a “cooling-off period” and cancelled her state of the school address, in which she planned to tackle some of parents’ concerns.
“I am calling for a cooling-off period where I suggest that all parties refrain from reaching out to the media or anyone outside the NEST+m community,” she said. “I acknowledge I may have been remiss in addressing some of your concerns and the misconceptions about the school that have been circulating; I will take advantage of this time to write to all of you and set the record straight.”
Betsy Combier, a school parent and ardent supporter of Livanis, said the conflict has ruined a number of long-term friendships between parents.
“It’s just so sad,” she said. “None of this has to happen.”
Combier, who last year was also active with the former executive committee in the fight to keep the new Ross Global Academy charter school out of the building, said that while she loved NEST and the former principal, things had gotten out of control. Since some of the previous assistant principals were not certified, they were not able to properly monitor teachers.
“This led to extreme teacher favoritism and abuse,” she charged. Combier also said that the executive committee had operated stealthily, sometimes failing to produce executive committee meeting minutes. “Physically, the P.T.A. [executive commitee] wanted to be the ones to remain in control,” she said.
The NEST saga continued as D.O.E. launched an audit of the P.T.A.’s financial records. After the mass resignation, D.O.E. assigned a special investigator to the project. Finally, last week, the P.T.A. ran an ad in The New York Times looking for a new principal.
This week, the P.T.A. was set to elect a new president or co-presidents and treasurer in an expedited election. After these positions have been filled, the remaining positions will be filled in an election at a later date.