LAKE PLACID - Tensions were high when a local man objected to a teacher hiring at the Lake Placid Central School District's board meeting Tuesday.
The district hired four teachers and one substitute. Jason Pedu's outrage was primarily about the hiring of Melissa Latella to the third grade. She is the wife of Lake Placid Elementary School Principal Brian Latella, who is going into his second year here. She was formerly a full-time teacher for 10 years at Hamilton Central School in Hamilton, teaching third grade before moving to Lake Placid with her husband, but district officials had not shared those qualifications publicly at the time of the meeting.
Pedu's wife, Bambi Pedu, has been a substitute at the district for three years and applied for a teaching position, but was not hired. Jason Pedu said he was shocked by the board's decision to hire Melissa Latella and called it nepotism.
School board President Mary Dietrich cut him off during the meeting's public comment period for his remarks about teaching personnel. The Adirondack Daily Enterprise initially, incorrectly reported that Dietrich kicked Pedu out of the meeting.
"I'm going to stop this," Dietrich said, cutting Pedu off. "This is a violation of our policy." Dietrich said discussing school personnel is against the rules of the public comment period.
Pedu did not stop speaking, however, and asked Dietrich if Brian Latella was in on Melissa's interview. Dietrich said he was not. Pedu then claimed Brian Latella coached his wife on the interview questions. This charge has not been proven.
After speaking, Pedu remained in the room for several minutes before leaving voluntarily.
Melissa Latella said Thursday it was difficult to not be able to teach when she moved to Lake Placid with her husband. She said teaching is not just a job but her passion in life.
"I'm proud that I was chosen to share my love of learning with the children at Lake Placid Elementary," Latella wrote in an email. "I have met so many wonderful people here. It is kindness and generosity that made my family and I decide this is the best place for us."
Pedu said outside the meeting that he thinks Melissa Latella and another newly hired teacher, Jason Leon, are the least qualified of the job applicants. On Wednesday, however, Superintendent Roger Catania mentioned Melissa Latella's 10 years of experience in Hamilton. Catania had declined to share that personnel information when asked for it Tuesday after the meeting.
Leon has been a teaching assistant for five years at Lake Placid Elementary School and has a master's degree in elementary education. He also has some substitute experience and taught summer school classes in the district. He is also a village trustee.
The board voted 5-1 in favor of hiring Melissa Latella for third grade at a salary of $49,412. New board member Patricia Stanton cast the sole "no" vote.
"To have the administrator as husband and wife, I think it changes the dynamic," Stanton said. "It's not illegal but definitely frowned upon. I just don't think it seems appropriate."
Dietrich said it's not uncommon in small school districts for this to happen.
John Hopkinson, vice president of the board, said these situations should be avoided, but he agreed with Dietrich that Latella was highly qualified for the position and voted to hire her.
Board member Patti Gallagher said she has thought a lot about the situation because she also works with her husband, at a hospital.
"I would hate to have an experienced teacher with training that we would not be able to utilize because of a husband-and-wife situation," Gallagher said.
Jenny Winch was also hired for a third grade teaching job at a salary of $43,890. Denja Wiebrecht was hired for second grade at a salary of $43,869. Leon was hired for fifth grade at a salary of $43,629. Whitney Emery was hired as a substitute for the first half of the next budget year.
Before the votes were taken, Catania addressed the room on the interview process. He said hiring two teachers for third grade, instead of one as previously planned, was very difficult with the current budget situation. Several parents had recently criticized district officials for increasing third-grade class sizes by having two sections instead of three.
"The search, interview and selection for this process was very challenging," Catania said.
Catania said there were two rounds of interviews, the second round conducted solely by him. He added that the process was fair and objective.
"The final decision was mine," Catania said.