A cautionary tale for Board of Ed members from a Scarsdale teacher

Monday, March 3, 2014
by Christine Yeres

Last Tuesday’s Board of Ed meeting was packed, not so much by budget-watchers, but by students, parents and one parent-and-teacher who had all come to plead that the Board find a way to retain tech teacher and wrestling coach Mike DeBellis in next year’s budget.  John Harrison, a resident of Chappaqua with three children (one in the wrestling program) in CCSD and Chair of the History Department at Scarsdale High School, told board members a story of “how my own professional life has benefited by some of the decisions this school district has made over the last few years.”

Harrison recalled for Board members the “much beloved Social Studies teacher” who was “reduced” two-and-a-half years ago from a full-time to a 0.6 position—the result of the decrease in the high school population projected for 2011-12.  [Harrison did not use the teacher’s name, but records show—and board members, parents and students remember—that it was history teacher Patrick Healy.  NCNOW will use his name below, though Harrison did not.] 

At the time, Healy had the least seniority in the Greeley History Department.  He did not accept the part-time offer from CCSD and was hired that September by Scarsdale to teach World and American History.  CCSD’s decision to reduce Healy’s job turned out to be, Harrison pointed out, Scarsdale’s good fortune. 

“I know great teachers when I see them,” said Harrison, “and I called Healy the next day and I said, ‘I hear you’ve just been reduced at Greeley.  Do you want to come interview for a job at Scarsdale?’ and he said, ‘Absolutely.’  He came, he interviewed.  I hired him almost on the spot and he was awarded tenure last year and is one of the absolutely magnificent members of the Scardale High School Social Studies Department.”

“Claudio Phillips [a previous speaker] mentioned the celebration that would occur” at the school district that gets DeBellis if CCSD lets him go, said Harrison, “Well, I actually attended a celebration for a member of this school district [Healy] who was excessed and who I hired immediately because I knew how good he was.  A comment was made earlier that ‘Leaders need to protect good staff.’ And I haven’t looked at this budget closely.  I don’t know what other cuts can be made.  But I have to ask you as leaders of this district, to do two things. One, recognize the wonderful teacher that you have in Mike DeBellis; second, recognize that there are school districts out there—perhaps the one that I work for—who will hire him quickly.”


There was one more part to Harrison’s tale.  “There was a phone call made when [Greeley history teacher] Steve Houser retired [at the end of school year 2013] because there was an opening.  And the phone call came in to Scarsdale High School and Healy answered the phone and they said ‘Would you like to come interview for the position?’ and he said ‘No, thank you.’ So there it was.  Houser had left and the position was open.  But they couldn’t hire Healy because I had hired him already.”

“Scarsdale students are benefiting tremendously,” said Harrison, “from the training and experience and the years of dedication that Patrick Healy put into this school.  I would hate to have that story told a few years from now, where someone would come up here and talk about how they had hired Mike DeBellis away when Chappaqua had excessed him in the spring of 2014.”

In the video of the Board of Ed meeting of last Tuesday, embedded below, Harrison speaks at the 1-hour, 43-minute mark. 

CCSD Board of Education 2/26/14 from New Castle Media Center on Vimeo.


Related:  Patrick Healy will teach World and American History at Scarsdale H.S., 9/11/11.

We encourage civil, civic discourse. All comments are reviewed before publication to assure that this standard is met.

Mike DeBellis does much more for his students and athletes than teach and coach them. He builds their confidence and character. We don’t have enough teachers with that capability. Let’s keep the ones we have.

By David Perlmuttter on 03/03/2014 at 10:24 am

Can we cut some of the many administrators/non teaching staff we have instead of some of our teachers?

By I wonder on 03/03/2014 at 10:34 am

and we layed off Deba August as a tech facilitator four years ago.  She’s now Croton’s Director of Technology and she’s tenured.  By the way, Scarsdale has 9 tech facilitators.  Chappaqua has none.

Editor’s Note:  The Board of Ed disclosed in its meeting last night (Wednesday, March 5) that the Chappaqua School district employs six “Computer Aides,” one at each of the schools.  They are civil service employees who make around $38,000 per year.

By sandra Flank on 03/03/2014 at 10:37 am

Absolutely right.  Shortsightedness is leading CCSD to become second-rate.  Its a not so secret dirty little secret that parents already believe that the school rests on the laurels of parents who pay money to fill in the gaps of Greeley High School.  It is commonly said that 1 out of two teachers at high school are not great.

By Lori on 03/03/2014 at 10:48 am

Great, apt comments, John. Thank you.

By Sara Kaplan on 03/03/2014 at 10:54 am

I was at last week’s Board of Ed meeting and was so impressed with the support of the students and parents for Mike DeBellis, a teacher and coach that my children have never had.  In my 14 years so far in this school district there are many teachers that my 4 kids have had that have been very poor, that nobody would stand up for and support at a BOE meeting.  Any teacher that that many people would take a stand for is someone that the District needs to do everything in its power to keep.

By E Lesser on 03/03/2014 at 11:47 am

Kudos to John for speaking up!

While the budget charts are a good basis, has anyone yet seen the split in salaries of instructional vs non-instructional employees?

For example, the Board of Ed building has a full parking lot each day….what are the staffing counts for the offices of Chief School Administrator, Business Administrator, Auditing, Legal, Human Resources, Public Information, etc.?

Why don’t we tie those staff (and ultimately salaries) into student counts?

By Jackie on 03/03/2014 at 12:32 pm

John Harrison is absolutely right – we should learn from our mistakes and NOT let this happen again.  Of course the bigger issue is tenure – there needs to be a way that districts can keep their wonderful, young, enthusiastic teachers and not just let them go because they dont have seniority.  Job status should be based on merit and reviews, not just simply years of service.

By Please Keep DeBellis on 03/03/2014 at 12:40 pm

If we need a special position created for “social emotional well-being” it’s because not enough teachers are truly interested in their students’ lives.  DeBellis is.

By Keep DeBellis on 03/03/2014 at 5:13 pm

Thank you John Harrison for making this important point. I hope our BOE and admin is listening, I believe that they are. However, budget restraints – with no reform in sight from Albany- have brought us “down to the bone” when it comes to staff and programing cuts at all of our schools. If we are not quite there yet, we are VERY, VERY close.
Teachers like Mike DeBellis and Patrick Healy enrich the lives of our children in ways that reach far beyond the classroom. The passion and enthusiasm they bring to every interaction they have with EVERY child is a unique gift.
Keep digging through that budget John Chow (Assis. Sup for Business)…there has to be a way!

By Heather Lafortezza on 03/03/2014 at 7:16 pm

Is there any feedback from parents of students who did not have this teacher as a wrestling coach.  He obviously motivates his wrestlers, but i would be interested in hearing from those who don’t know him in that way.

By Obviously motivates his wrestlers on 03/03/2014 at 11:47 pm

If you watch the video, this is actually a very odd rant by John Harrison.  In essence, he is wailing against the tenure system that his wife, a teacher in the district and he, a teacher at Scarsdale, both benefit from. The union seniority rules necessitated that the schools layoff precisely who they did.  The union prevents the district from making layoff decisions based on anything but seniority.  He also claims that he hired this Healy guy the next day.  It is an interesting concept and (to be kind) probably an “exaggeration of the truth” to say that a department chair can hire a new teacher in a day without his principal and without interviewing others.

So, the school district in which he lives, the school district in which he teaches with the same tenure and seniority rules that he enjoys should be mocked because it followed the rules? 

Btw, he teaches at Scarsdale which had its budget defeated last year amid cries of the teacher’s healthcare plan was too exorbitant, that teacher children got a free ride and were crowding classes and that the administration wanted to spend a $1 million building a student health club.  Kettle? Black.

So, if this DeBellis teacher and coach is so great, the union should wave the seniority rule and allow the district to keep him and cut (back) another less caring teacher.

By For realsie on 03/04/2014 at 11:05 am

This article appeared in the NYT Westchester Section (remember that?) It’s an example of the kind of work Mr. DeBellis does with the kids.


For the record- none of my children wrestle.

By Heather Lafortezza on 03/04/2014 at 11:40 am

To For realsie (really?),
Harrison didn’t say he had hired Healy the next day, he said he had called him the next day. (Good teachers instruct students to read carefully for details.) Seniority rules are statewide, not in the control of local districts or unions.  Tenure has nothing to do with the price of tea in China.  DeBellis was tenured years ago.  Seniority rules might be the issue, but that’s assuming the other technology teachers are in some way inferior to DeBellis.  The Scarsdale budget went down essentially because of the health club, not because of the other issues, and remember that they were trying to exceed the property tax cap.  Please get your facts straight before you rant in public again.

By Reality for For Realsie on 03/04/2014 at 1:34 pm

My facts are straight.  The seniority rules are part of tenure.  He said he called him the next day and hired him.  If you followed the Scarsdale discussion, there were three issues, the health club, the self insurance health plan and the fact that so many teachers had their children going to school for free in the district.  I would add a fourth and that is that the administration and board seemed arrogant about the whole thing and misread the tea leaves.  Here is a link to an article in Scarsdale10583 the NewCastleNow of Scarsdale. http://www.scarsdale10583.com/about-joomla/letters-to-the-editor/3289-community-reacts-to-scarsdale-budget-vote Right there in the first section there are bullet points that list the reasons.  Read them before you talk about your facts.

To save you time, here is the relevant part:

From these comments, here are the reasons for discontent among the “No” voters:

Budget surpassed the maximum allowable increase (3.38%) as dictated by the NYS Tax Cap
School tax increases are excessive and force empty nesters to move out of town.
<bold>Budget included funds for a new Wellness Center
Teachers are overpaid, they do not contribute to their own health insurance and their children attend the Scarsdale Schools, tuition free</bold>

Which brings us to the next question, if Harrison thinks Scarsdale is so great, better than Chappaqua, why not have his kids go to school there?  I happen to think the fact his kids go to school here says a lot about what he really thinks about the Chappaqua education versus the Scarsdale one.

Instead of the self promotion at how great he is in recognizing and hiring this teacher, he should acknowledge the reason it was even possible.  The union work rules.

Editor’s Note: He did not say “he called him the next day and hired him.” Re-read.

By For realsie (really!) on 03/04/2014 at 6:38 pm

Editor: By your own words in the article:

“I hired him almost on the spot.”  What does that mean?

Editor’s Note: 

1. It was a quote. The words are not “my” words; they are Harrison’s

2. There is a difference between what you said Harrison said:

“… he called him the next day and hired him.”

. . . and what Harrison said: 

“He came, he interviewed.  I hired him almost on the spot.”

By For realsie on 03/04/2014 at 9:09 pm

For Realsie is 100% spot on.  Tenure is responsible and Harrison is a direct beneficiary of those rules.  His hypocrisy is surpassed only by his deplorable lack of professionalism.  He’s a resident but was speaking as a Scarsdale teacher at a Chappaqua meeting, gloating over hiring one of our teachers as a consequences of tenure.  I can’t imagine a Chappaqua teacher doing this in another school district.  How embarrassing for Scarsdale.

By Not impressed on 03/04/2014 at 9:40 pm

No kids in the school for many years.  However, this teacher is a gem and gives way more
to the schools than some of the proposed add ons for the high school.  We need to stop being foolish and find a way to shift this teacher for the good of many students.

By LBG on 03/05/2014 at 12:29 pm

While I appreciate Mr. Harrison’s comments, it is hard to take him seriously when he is part of the same teachers’ union that is causing all of these issues throughout NY State with all of their mandates, pensions, etc.  Teachers will continue to be terminated to fund these union-mandates.  The hypocrisy cannot be defended.  Sorry Mr. Harrison

By Sorry Mr. Harrison on 03/05/2014 at 9:11 pm

Instead of getting caught in the details of who said what to whom, and instead of arguing against tenure—which I am not sure we can change—let’s remember the point. 

We are stuck with a system where we lose the youngest, best teachers because of benefits and investments we are required to make on behalf of our District’s union employees.  How are other districts dealing with this problem?  How can we make other cuts to “save” good teachers?  Can we plan ahead when we know someone may be retiring?

Losing Patrick Healy was awful.

By Anne Angowitz on 03/06/2014 at 3:51 pm

A sober assessment Anne. But if the budget and its various “unfunded mandates”  are an immovable object at this point, can’t we get more “value” out of the many “six figure” faculty members we are privileged to include in our faculty? With all that education and experience? Can’t we ask them to contribute a little more?

By KFB on 03/10/2014 at 2:23 pm

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