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4 Canisius High teachers sue over tenure denial

Four of seven Canisius High School teachers who were denied tenure at the beginning of this school year have filed suit in State Supreme Court, seeking reinstatement with tenure, full back pay and benefits.

The seven terminations have cast a pall over the faculty, with some teachers contending that the decisions were made over the principal's head, with no formal criteria for teacher evaluations. They complained about this to administration officials during the final meeting of the Faculty Senate on May 25.

"As I leave Canisius, I feel used by the school and betrayed," Gladys Soto Krueger, one of the suing teachers, told administrators, contending that she had been informally evaluated as a teacher without being made privy to the procedures.

Principal Frank D. Tudini replied: "It is extremely difficult not to be able to give people precise reasons. . . . The decision is not mine to make."

"The bottom line," Krueger retorted, "is that we cannot be told why we are being let go. We will never find out why."

Throughout the meeting, according to a 19-page transcript obtained by The Buffalo News, the Rev. James P. Higgins, the school president, warded off questions about how the terminated teachers had been evaluated and whether he, not the principal, had made the final decisions.

"There is a paranoia among the faculty," Robert Krum, chairman of the mathematics department, told Higgins. "If these teachers were terminated and weren't given reasons, then what is to say that this group of teachers isn't going to be next -- next year?"

Fifteen other faculty members, two of them Jesuit priests, also spoke up about faculty confusion over staffing decisions, according to the transcript from the taped meeting.

In papers filed July 15 in State Supreme Court by attorney Michael J. Flaherty, Krueger and three other teachers contend that they fulfilled the requirements of their contracts, which provided for tenure after passing a five-year probationary period, earning a master's degree and gaining New York State permanent certification.

The teachers contend that they were abruptly terminated without being officially denied tenure. Suing with Krueger are Todd Overturf of Amherst, an art teacher; Gina M. Passantino of Amherst, a social studies teacher; and Mary Grace Duggan of Buffalo, an English teacher.

The suit alleges that Higgins "acted beyond his authority and competence as president" by ordering the principal to terminate the teachers.

Duggan, Krueger and Overturf contend that they had acquired "tenure by acquiescence" as faculty members by the end of the 2003-04 school year. Passantino says she completed her requirements this year.

Attorney Ginger D. Schroder filed answering papers for the school Sept. 15. While acknowledging that the four teachers had completed five years' service and earned their master's degrees and permanent state certification, she denied that anyone was unilaterally denied tenure.

"Neither Krueger, Duggan nor Passantino were ever invited to participate in the tenure-consideration process," she wrote, and "Overturf was prematurely invited to participate [and] failed."

Schroder also denied that Higgins ordered Tudini to fire the teachers.

"Plaintiffs were offered employment contracts for the 2004-2005 academic school year under which plaintiffs would have remained [only] probationary employees," she wrote.

Higgins' office referred all questions to the school's lawyer. But the chairman of the board of trustees, lawyer Lawrence J. Vilardo, issued this statement:

"All our decisions, including personnel decisions, are made in the best interests of the school, and especially the students. Sometimes those decisions are difficult, but they need to be made nonetheless. Unfortunately, these former teachers have chosen to institute litigation to challenge decisions about our classrooms, decisions that should not be made or second-guessed in the courtroom."

e-mail: acardinale@buffnews.com

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