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Testing Horace Mann

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Just as the board announced benefit cuts, the first finalist in the head-of-school search arrived on campus for interviews. Of all the candidates, Kelly, who’d been superintendent of the Valhalla school district in Westchester, stood out for his lack of private-school experience. He had spent the first ten years of his career teaching children with severe mental handicaps before becoming a public-school administrator. But the board was impressed with his experience running a large, complex school system and his experience with construction, though things had not always gone as planned. In 2003, Kelly had allowed construction companies to dump debris at Valhalla schools in exchange for building new athletic fields atop the pile, but the plan backfired. (A 2005 report published by State Comptroller Alan Hevesi found that the “fill-for-fields” scandal was a “windfall for the construction companies that saved as much as $19.4 million in dumping fees but a disaster for taxpayers who must pay nearly $3.8 million” to clean up the mess.) At the time Kelly told the Westchester Journal News, “You have to come and see what we’ve gotten: two new baseball fields and synthetic turf on another. That’s how I rationalize what a nightmare this has been.”

“What you did was like breaking into my daughter’s room and reading her diary,” said the trustee. “No,” said McGuire, “what your daughter did was the equivalent of posting something in Times Square.”

After the board had interviewed the candidates, Peter Sheehy and Jennifer McFeely, head of the guidance department, met with Katz to recommend that the school continue its search. On January 5, 2005, the board announced that the job had gone to Kelly. Over lunch that day, David Schiller told Sheehy, “This is a tragic day for Horace Mann.”

Andrew Trees remained on the sidelines during the Facebook imbroglio. A month after the scandal, however, David Schiller, Trees charges, told a colleague that Kelly had claimed Trees was at work on a second book, this time a nonfiction exposé of Horace Mann. (Trees later explained that he was writing a book, but its subject was the science of dating.) Schiller’s allegations baffled Trees, but because no administrator had confronted him directly, he did not bother to set the record straight.

On Sunday, January 28, 2007, Kelly informed Barry Bienstock that he would not be renewing Trees’s contract; in effect, he was being fired. (Faculty who pass a performance review after three years of teaching are granted automatic contract renewals, and the school’s handbook outlines a process for termination. Trees had been at the school for six years and had never been afforded a formal dismissal process.) The next afternoon, Kelly told Trees that he was “a really great teacher” and the school had “no complaints” about his professionalism. But hypothetically speaking, Kelly wouldn’t offer a job to a teacher if he knew the applicant was writing a “satirical review” about the school. Therefore, Kelly was giving Trees the option to resign. If he didn’t accept? “I don’t know what I’ll say to people when they call and ask why we’re not keeping you,” Kelly said.

Later that week, Sheehy and the three other members of the faculty-grievance committee resigned their positions in protest. In March, Trees’s attorney, Ed Little, met with the school’s lawyer, Mark Brossman, and vice-chairman of the Horace Mann board, Cahill Gordon & Reindel partner Howard “Peter” Sloane. Before Little could open negotiations over severance, Sloane cut him off. “The answer is zero,” he said. “Maybe we’ll give him a letter of recommendation, but he’s out.”

News that Trees was leaving was closely held. Over the spring, he quietly packed up his office, bringing a few books home each day. But on Friday, May 18, Sheehy wrote a letter to the Record disclosing Trees’s departure. “The short-term satisfaction that some may receive by the expulsion of Dr. Trees from our community will, I fear, be overshadowed by the chilling effect that such an act will have on the open and free exchange of ideas that is crucial to a secure and healthy institution,” he wrote. Some students protested Trees’s firing. One class studying civil disobedience staged a walkout, and enlisted another—studying Bolshevik history—to walk out, too. But other students had somewhat subdued reactions. (In the Record the previous spring, a snide, un-bylined review had noted that Academy X “leaves HMers wondering just how much of the book is real—and I’m sure that we all hope that the explicit sexual urges that teachers in Academy X feel towards their students and co-workers are more fictional than the large bell tower that Trees describes as adorning the school.”)

Students questioned once again why the same teachers who had cracked down on student expression on Facebook were now defending the free speech of a colleague who had made fun of students in his novel. “When it was students saying things about teachers—and I’m not equating—they were immediately punished,” said Jessica Moldovan, a member of the class of 2007. “And when it was a teacher making certain statements about students, about the way we act, many of which were fabricated and exaggerated, you know, he was fighting back and saying freedom of speech.” Other students complained about teachers who passed around petitions in class defending Trees. “It was borderline coercive,” said Michael Marcusa, then student-body vice-president. “The overall principle of trying to bring students into a dispute with the administration is unprofessional.”


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