Eric Ely readily acknowledges that his school district has challenges.
Schenectady City School District in New York is an urban district with high rates of poverty and a large minority population. The district’s high school is in academic trouble. The district’s facilities supervisor was arrested a year ago on suspicion of arson, vandalism and weapons possession.
Ely, who is one of five candidates interviewing for the superintendent job in Billings School District 2, said he has spent the past four years trying to address many of those challenges and turn the district around.
Student proficiency rates in the kindergarten through eighth grades have steadily risen over the last few years, he said. The focus has been to improve elementary school achievement so those students are better prepared for high school.
“We really can’t fix our high school until we fix our foundation,” he said.
Juliet Benaquisto, president of the district’s teacher union, said area schools have begun to move in the right direction and that Ely has played a part in that.
She described Ely as a tough negotiator but accommodating in his efforts to listen to her concerns as union president.
“Eric has been very respectful of my role and the union’s role in general,” she said.
Tackling the tough economy, Ely has worked to make the district’s budget operate more efficiently.
“He’s an excellent budget man,” said Jeff Janiszewski, a trustee with the Schenectady City School Board. “I’d rather not see him go.”
Janiszewski was board president when Ely became superintendent in 2006.
But during the past 12 months the district’s academic and budget concerns have mostly receded to the background.
In February 2009, the district’s facilities supervisor was arrested on suspicion of arson, vandalism and weapons possession. He was accused of leaving pipe bombs on the property of co-workers and vandalizing property.
The supervisor, Steven Raucci, retired two months after his arrest. His trial starts Monday.
“It’s been a very difficult time for Eric,” Janiszewski said.
After the arrest, Ely faced questions about how much he knew of Raucci’s behavior before the arrest, including accusations that Raucci may have fraudulently claimed tens of thousands of dollars in overtime from the district.
Ely pointed out that Raucci had worked in the district for 33 years and for eight superintendents and that many of the charges brought against Raucci stemmed from events years ago.
Raucci was good at his job, keeping maintenance calls down and reducing the district’s use of electricity, Ely said. What Raucci may have been doing on his own time was just that, Ely said.
“I don’t think there’s any way I could have known what was going on,” he said.
Benaquisto said Raucci’s arrest and the allegations that have since surfaced have brought plenty of attention to the district. At this point, she said, it’s taken on “life of its own.”
Then she added, “I’m sure it’s why (Ely is) looking around.”
Ely was in Erie, Pa., earlier this week as the last of three finalists to interview for the superintendent job there.
Benaquisto offered her own opinion of the situation.
“I don’t believe that Eric is solely responsible,” she said. “Certainly it was there long before he stepped in.”