Michael Tebbano came from Voorheesville in 1997 to work in the music department at Bethlehem High School.
Nearly 15 years later, Tebbano is leaving his position atop the district as he prepares to move to Florida with his wife.
“I came here to be the high school band director and never had any intention of doing anything more than that,” Tebbano recalled during a recent interview. “One thing led to another and the district saw some leadership potential in me and encouraged me to step it up, and I did.”
Stepping up in a downturn
Tebbano took over as superintendent in the fall of 2008 and has led the district through tumultuous financial times since then.
“People tell me that I was superintendent at the worst time in public education,” said Tebbano. “In a way, it was probably not what I had wanted. Then again, when you are a chief executive officer of an organization, you don’t always have the opportunity to determine what the playing field would be like.”
The district’s financial situation played a significant role in Tebbano’s time as superintendent. He said the fiscal downslide in public education occurred on his doorstep, and at the same time, the district lost Assistant Superintendent for Business Steven O’Shea, who died in October 2008 after a lengthy battle with cancer. Tebbano said at the time, he was in a “real fix.”
“My biggest accomplishment is, over the last 3 1/2 years, I have been able to get the district to be more fiscally responsible, to get the district to learn to do with less, to get the district to gather support of the community during these very difficult times and make some very difficult budget decisions so that we have a phenomenal educational program given at a cost basis that will not break the backs of the community,” said Tebbano.
Tebbano attempted unsuccessfully to have a cellular tower placed on school property in order to bring in what he estimated would be between $50,000 and $60,000 worth of revenue. A tower did eventually go up near Eagle Elementary, but on private property.
“That would have paid for one teacher,” said Tebbano. “The community stopped me from doing that because they didn’t think that was healthy. The fact of the matter is that was a big mistake.”
He added that he had to respect that the community said no to the idea.
As for finding other sources of revenue, Tebbano said there are none to pursue.
“We tried, and the community made it clear they didn’t want us to commercialize,” Tebbano said. “They didn’t want to see a cell tower up, and they were concerned about that quality of life in Delmar that would be affected by these things.”
Perhaps the most controversial decision during Tebbano’s tenure was the choice to close down Clarksville Elementary following the 2010-2011 school year.
Faced with declining enrollment numbers and a need to cut costs, the Board of Education moved forward with the closure, leaving the district with five elementary schools.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t second-guess myself on that, because I know how much it hurt a lot of people,” said Tebbano. “Unfortunately, it made fiscal sense to close the building. It didn’t make emotional sense to the people who were affected by it.”
As an educator, Tebbano said he dreamed about developing smaller learning communities. However, with smaller class sizes at Clarksville compared to the rest of the district, the choice was one he believed had to be made.
“I could not at the end of the day actually feel comfortable with the idea, in this economy, which is terrible, to justify a smaller learning community with fewer kids getting as much of the resources as the other schools, which were packed and could not do half the things that Clarksville could do because of the resources.”
Teaching kids today
When asked if it is more difficult to teach children now compared to at the beginning of his career, Tebbano made it clear he doesn’t find it difficult to teach kids. He pointed to outside influences as the problem.
“For me to be in a classroom with a child and help them read and help them be successful is an easy process, because a good teacher feels committed to doing that work,” said Tebbano. “When everybody else is knocking on the door telling that teacher how to do the job, then it’s complicated. I worry about the state of what it means to be a teacher in the future because of that.”
Tebbano was candid about his viewpoint that the federal government “should keep their nose out of education.” He went on to criticize the regulations, mandates and lack of funding from the state level.
“You’ve heard the phrase that there’s too many cooks in the kitchen,” Tebbano commented. “This is exactly what it is, but when I see some very outstanding teachers bending over backwards to help children and helping them feel success and helping them get ahead and nurturing whatever their needs are, I feel very strongly that the art of teaching has never gone away.”
Tebbano will move to Florida, where he and his wife own property. The outgoing superintendent said he’ll focus on creative things, such as continuing to write a blog. He’s received offers to teach at the college level, but said that it will probably be “all about me” when he retires.
“I’m going to be writing a book, and I hope to be doing a lot of reading and getting caught up on taking care of myself,” said Tebbano. “I had a health incident this summer, which was pretty serious, which taught me a few lessons that I need to rein in my life with regards to stress levels.”
Tebbano will be replaced by Dr. Thomas Douglas, the superintendent of the Chenango Valley Central School District in Binghamton. Douglas has led that district since 2009.