Mayfield school officials confirm teacher back at work, face mask objections

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Mayfield resident Jordan Howard speaks out against the school board requiring all in attendance to comply with the state’s order to continue wearing masks inside school buildings before allowing members of the public to speak during a second public comment during Tuesday’s meeting.

MAYFIELD — About 50 people packed into the Mayfield Central School District Board of Education meeting Tuesday night, many of them hoping to speak their minds about the district’s decision to place a pre-K teacher on paid administrative leave, and then reinstate her to her classroom for undisclosed reasons.

Those people would leave the meeting disappointed, after the school board decided to adjourn early after several members of the public refused to comply with the state’s ongoing indoor mask mandate for school buildings.

In a theatrical display, Mayfield resident Jordan Howard refused to put a mask on after Mayfield Superintendent Christopher Harper distributed disposable masks to the maskless members of the crowd between the end of a closed-door executive session and a second public comment period.

“It’s a mandate, not a law!” Howard said.

“Then we’ll end the meeting now,” Harper said.

“You can’t by law! I’m just stating a fact,” Howard said.

“I’d like to introduce you to our attorney, Erin Morris,” Harper said.

Howard continued shouting at the board. He said he believes the public was asked to put on masks only as method of discouraging people from commenting on the pre-K teacher issue, but refused to wear one anyway, and shouted at the board, stating he was disabled and that Gov. Hochul’s mask mandate should not have the power of law, or apply to him, because he is disabled.

“Just do this please, none of us are enjoying this right now, none of us deserve the way we’ve been talked to and treated,” School Board Vice President Cassie Kristel said. “So, please, we are just trying to do what New York state asks us. We are an entity under the state. We have funds from the state.”

“So then let’s ask why 50 minutes after the meeting has already started, now you’re going to try to [require] half of the people to put on masks,” Howard said.

After Howard’s statement, School Board President Aaron Flynn made a motion to end the meeting. Kristel provided the second and the board voted unanimously to do so.

Howard’s description of the timeline of the tense meeting was accurate. The meeting occurred in three distinct phases, a pair of public comment periods with a closed-door executive session between them. 

Flynn told the crowd that the first public comment period would pertain only to school board agenda meeting items, which did not include the fate of the pre-K teacher, Carey Lizzio, who was listed as being in attendance at the meeting, according the school board meeting’s sign-in sheet.

The only Mayfield resident who spoke during this portion of the meeting was former board member Kevin Capobianco, who called the board to task for not previously publishing a school board agenda item regarding the district’s graduation policies, which the board voted on Tuesday night.

Capobianco said that while the public should have been given at least 24 hours to see and read the policy before the board voted on it, the district neglected to publish the item before the meeting.

Flynn told Capobianco that the board is only required to do what is reasonably possible with respect to prior publication of board agenda items, and the board would print out copies of the policy for everyone in attendance, which didn’t happen once the meeting broke up early.

Capobianco said the graduation policy is a small matter, but he was trying to make the larger point that he thinks the MCSD has gotten sloppy with following all of the little rules of operating a school district.

“It’s a small process, but if we’re skipping small processes, maybe we’re skipping bigger ones too,” he said.

Flynn explained that the second public comment period, focused on non-agenda items, would take place after the closed-door executive session, during which an undisclosed school district employee’s work history was discussed.  

However, when the board came back from the executive session, Harper said the maskless members of the public in attendance would need to put them on before the meeting could continue, which is when the dispute with Howard occurred, prompting its abrupt dismissal.

Several people in attendance at the meeting expressed frustration with Howard, even though they too were opposed to wearing masks.

“I put on my mouth diaper. He could have too. I wanted to speak,” one man said.

As the meeting was dispersing, Harper refused to answer any questions about Lizzio’s status.

“The meeting is over, and we’re leaving, safely,” he said.

Harper directed questions to school attorney Erin Morris of the Albany based law firm Girvin & Ferlazzo.

While Morris maintained the school district’s refusal to confirm that Lizzio was the teacher placed on paid leave, she did verify that the district has two employees in its pre-K program, the identities of which — Michelle Bowers and Carey Lizzio — are posted to www.mayfieldk12.com. She would not confirm that Lizzio had been restored to her classroom duties, adding that no Mayfield employee is currently on paid administrative leave, and that no one has been terminated, indicating that the school board has dropped the issue that was the reason for Lizzio’s brief suspension.

Luke Horst, the co-president of Mayfield’s teacher’s union, was also in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting. While Horst said he had no specific comment on the suspension of the pre-K teacher, he did indicate she was a member of the union and that the union supports her. He said Mayfield’s union contract has no specific clause spelling out the criteria for when a teacher can be placed on paid administrative leave. He also said that he is unaware of any district policy pertaining to staff using social media.

The controversy over the status of the pre-K teacher began on Jan. 29 when U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, claimed the district had either “wrongfully fired” or placed on administrative leave the teacher for allegedly reposting a social media post from Stefanik regarding opposition to Hochul’s mask mandate for schools.

The school district has denied Stefanik’s allegations, calling them false in the case of her claim that a district employee had been fired, and misleading with respect to her claim that a social media post was the reason a teacher was briefly placed on paid administrative leave. The district has denied social media posts had anything to do with the teacher’s paid suspension.

Stefanik issued a new statement on Monday, claiming the school district had ignored her New York state Freedom of Information Law request for details pertaining to the decision to place the pre-K teacher on paid leave. Stefanik said she has appealed the district’s alleged decision to ignore her request, starting a 10-day response period for the district to answer her appeal. Stefanik also threatened to use congressional subpoena power, if and when the Republican party regains the majority in the House of Representatives, to investigate the one-week paid suspension of the Mayfield teacher.

Morris said on Tuesday night that the district will issue a news release Wednesday answering Stefanik’s accusations regarding her FOIL request. 

By Jason Subik

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