ITHACA, N.Y.—Despite calls for transparency from parents, students and staff members, the Ithaca City School District and its Board of Education have stayed mostly mum about the absence of Liddy Coyle, the principal of Northeast Elementary School. Coyle hasn’t been at the school since Monday, much to the chagrin of the Northeast community that wants more answers.

Due to a state law the board cited before the Tuesday night ICSD Board of Education meeting began (and confirmed by the New York State School Board Association (NYSSBA)), staff and parents steadily avoided mentioning the name “Liddy Coyle,” but, despite that, Coyle was easily the most discussed topic of the evening’s public comment, which featured over a dozen speakers and came with a large blue banner stating “‘Be KIND to everyone you see!’ – Ms. Liddy.” You can watch the full meeting here.

Coyle was instead known as “the leadership of Northeast” or occasionally “our principal” during the meeting. Her leadership was repeatedly praised, as teachers and parents alike heaped applause on Coyle’s guidance during the pandemic and her ability to balance the needs of students learning both in-person and virtually. The support followed a small rally held outside of the school before classes on Tuesday calling for more information on Coyle’s employment.

“Clear, hopeful and funny,” said one parent of Coyle’s messaging during the most difficult parts of the COVID-19 pandemic for most students and parents, the spring and fall of 2020. “Unfailingly present, invested, and […] with the utmost humility,” said the school’s librarian, Megan Hulburt, during the meeting Tuesday.

“It’s felt all over the school,” said one teacher, quoting a student talking about Coyle being absent.

Coyle had previously served as Chief Academic Officer for the entire district, starting in 2015 until at least 2017. At some point after that, she was reassigned to principal at Northeast. According to two sources, Coyle is due to be considered for tenure at the beginning of June, but the status of that is unknown. A request for comment from Coyle was not returned.

Overall, it is unclear what her position or status with the district is at all. The situation’s close timing to the brief disappearance of a student from Northeast Elementary School last Thursday (the student was found safe at a friend’s house after a few hours) could lead some to believe the two situations are somehow related, but Sheriff Derek Osborne said he hadn’t seen anything to connect the two. Osborne’s office handled the investigation into the disappearance.

A letter sent the day after some staffers noticed Coyle was not at school offered little further information.

“Please welcome Ms. Lynn Klankowski as the administrator supporting Northeast Elementary School starting on Tuesday, May 24, 2022,” said a note sent Monday, May 23, by the district’s Director of Human Resources and Labor Relations Bob VanKeuren. “We appreciate everyone respecting Ms. Liddy Coyle’s privacy while she is out of the office.”

VanKeuren has not answered a request for more information sent Tuesday morning. Coyle is still listed as the school’s principal in the ICSD directory as of May 25.

“We just love her,” said Beth Myers, a first-grade teacher at the school during the walk-in event Tuesday morning. “She doesn’t deserve this.”

Board response at Tuesday’s meeting consisted of very little in terms of specifics to the Northeast situation, citing early on that it is a personnel matter to avoid the topic. Dr. Patricia Wasyliw said she felt a “strong sense of community,” when touring Northeast, acknowledging those who had come to speak to the board on Coyle’s behalf—fellow board member Erin Croyle also said that Northeast has been a great experience for her son. That was basically the closest any board member got to directly addressing the Northeast situation, with the exception of one other answer from Lang later.

“If there is information that’s being asked for regarding an employee, we cannot speak to it,” Lang said.

The board did meet in a private executive session for about the first 90 minutes of Tuesday’s meeting to discuss “matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation.” Obviously, there is no way to definitively tell if that session dealt with Coyle’s situation or not.

The Committee on Open Government has opined that school boards should be far more specific than just reading that statute to go into executive session about personnel matters, in order to comply with the Open Meetings Law, but it is not technically against the law. The NYSSBA also confirmed that interpretation of the below.

Other News and Notes

  • As for actual legislative business, the board did smoothly approve a slew of expenditures in the consent agenda, though none were of too much discussion or consequence.
  • Things took a turn into some strange territory during a portion of the board response segment of the meeting. Board President Rob Ainslie, who lost a bid for reelection last week, took an opportunity at the end of board response to swipe at incoming Board of Education members, claiming “there’s new board members coming on, they’ve never been in this room,” and saying he was “concerned” as a private citizen, ostensibly that some of the new members may not know enough about the board to serve effectively. He encouraged them to attend meetings before they take over this summer. For the record, both new members, Karen Yearwood and Jill Tripp, do have extensive backgrounds in local education in Ithaca, though their physical board meeting attendance is unclear.
  • Also addressing last week’s election, fellow board member Eldred Harris said he was “astounded” that board members were being asked about verifying residences, in response to a question about last week’s election debacle from a student representative (the board itself does not oversee board elections). He said more scrutiny should be placed on the Ithaca Teachers Association for endorsing Benjamin Mumford-Zisk when he didn’t meet residency requirements, which was one of the odd events that unfolded on Tuesday. Harris further rebuked the teachers union for actions during the election, and told community members that they should be warier of the ITA’s leadership’s word. “Get more savvy,” Harris told voters.
  • To lead off public comment, retired teacher Joyce Putnam and Judy Singer both spoke in support of Ainslie and Harris. Both said they have served the board admirably during their time on it (Ainslie was defeated in a bid for reelection, Harris narrowly secured another term). Singer, who is married to Ainslie, offered some particularly harsh words to the Ithaca Teachers Association, which she felt had lied about her husband, and Erin Croyle, the only current board member who had been endorsed by the ITA during the last election — Croyle was reelected for another term. She did not specifically name Croyle, however. Board member Moira Lang also offered her gratitude to Ainslie for his time on the board.
  • ICSD Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown also offered some somber thoughts regarding the school shooting that occurred earlier Tuesday in Texas, when a gunman killed 19 people, including 18 children and a teacher, in an elementary school.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com