Parents at Mandalay Elementary School in the Wantagh School District have been up in arms about the sudden transfer of a much-loved reading teacher from their school to another elementary school in the district. And they say that until the district’s administrators give them more of an explanation than has been offered to date, they are not backing down.
Roughly 100 parents met at the December Parent Teacher Association meeting on Dec. 10 to make their feelings public about the transfer of Denise Burkhard, a 27-year tenured veteran of both the district and Mandalay.
Burkhard is trained to help students with both reading deficits and a range of mental health issues, such as anxiety disorders. Some of her Mandalay students were also on the autism spectrum.
According to Jennifer Kramer, whose son, Jack, 11, was one of Burkhard’s students, Burkhard was transferred the day before Thanksgiving with no notice to parents. This was especially disturbing to parents like Kramer, whose son suffers from anxiety and depended on Burkhard for support throughout the school day.
“We had had issues with him being a school refuser” — a child who simply refused to go to school many mornings, Kramer said. “This year, with Mrs. Burkhard as his teacher, he was doing so much better. He not only stopped refusing to go, he started enjoying his classes.” Kramer said that Jack had Burkhard for his first period class, and “he could call on her for emotional support if he needed to; she was his go-to person throughout the day.”
“Since she left, now he’s back to refusing to go,” Kramer said.
After Burkhard’s transfer, parents mobilized quickly. By the time the PTA met last Tuesday, parents had printed lawn signs and buttons urging her return and protested outside the district’s administrative offices on Beltagh Avenue.
District Superintendent John McNamara and Board of Education President Elizabeth Guber both attended the PTA meeting. McNamara cautioned, however, that he would be unable to say anything concrete about the current case, since it was a personnel matter. “I understand that some of you might find that frustrating, and I apologize in advance,” he said, “but I really can’t comment on any of the details.” With those caveats in mind, he said he would answer as many questions as possible.
Despite that note of caution, many parents continued to press for just those details that McNamara said he was unable to give, and rumors spread.
Guber said she was confident the correct procedures had been followed in reassigning Burkhard. “We read the letters” sent by parents, she said. She assured parents that the impact of Burkhard’s transfer on her students was given full consideration in weighing the decision.
Parent Melissa Lanciotti said she only received the letter informing her of the board’s decision on Dec. 9, although the letter was dated Dec. 2. “Our kids are affected more than anyone,” she said. “Why couldn’t she at least say goodbye to the children?” Lanciotti also wondered if Wantagh Elementary was understaffed.
“Posting is a linear process,” McNamara said. “Transfers are a normal occurrence, a normal part of that process.”
Parents weren’t buying that, though. “Just because a group of people made this decision doesn’t mean it can’t be a mistake,” Elisa Manessis said. “We’re not going to let this die.”
“You talked it through and made a plan, but you forgot to include the kids,” parent Adam Ross added.
The scene was repeated two days later at the Board of Education’s last meeting of the year. There, perhaps 200 parents and students gathered to take their turns at the microphones. In testimonial after testimonial, Burkhard was praised as an experienced teacher with a perfect record in 27 years of dedicated service.
Once again, Gruber and McNamara emphasized that they were unable to comment publicly on personnel matters. Burkhard has also refused to comment. Wantagh United Teachers President Rich Colavita, just beginning his first term in office, was similarly tight-lipped, and other teachers and staff have not been named.
The next steps are unclear. Parents claim that Burkhard’s replacement at Mandalay does not possess the qualifications required to work with children with individual education plans, and they have vowed to continue their efforts to bring Burkhard back to Mandalay. They insist that both McNamara and the board have the power to bring her back.
“My son requires her presence,” Kramer said bluntly, “and therefore, so do I.”