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‘VERY UNPROFESSIONAL SETTING’: Report highlights staff concerns in Romulus schools

Does the Romulus Central School District have a culture problem?

The rural district, which is the smallest in Seneca County and among the smallest in the region has been dealing with big problems lately. Community members say a longtime culture of intimidation and retaliation exists within the district’s walls. They allege that it’s having a significant impact on students, educators, and support staff. 

These challenges became regionally known last month when January’s Board of Education meeting featured an unusually high turnout. Those sessions are typically held in the district’s Board Conference Room. However, administrators moved it the school’s auditorium in anticipation of that turnout.

Community members point to one of the district’s principals — Chris Puylara — as a point of emphasis for these internal issues. In the weeks after that January meeting — spoke with several parents, educators, and community members about the situation in Romulus. While each shared a unique perspective about the district’s situation — several themes developed. 

Then in late-January, our newsroom received a copy of a report, which evaluated community culture. The report was generated from a survey, where educators in the district shared their concerns about administrators. The survey was conducted under the assumption that district leadership would take the information, and work with them to improve the culture.

That didn’t happen.

We spoke with several inside the district who said the report was scrapped, after it’s findings were deemed critical of administrators. The report titled, “Creating Community Feedback 2022-2023” is headlined by five primary concerns. 

  1. Inconsistent communication from administrators to staff;
  2. Favoritism by within the ranks of administrators;
  3. Mistrust between administrators and staff/faculty;
  4. The need for improvements to the physical environment; and
  5. Frustration with new hires made within the district.

Each concern in the report was accompanied by 1-2 pages of individual responses from the survey. The survey was conducted anonymously to encourage open and honest feedback from those working in the district.

“Communication is Unclear and Inconsistent”

“This is a huge concern as the communicated information changes from one day to the next,” one respondent wrote. “Many times there is not a clear chain of command and it puts us in the middle,” wrote another. “Mixed and conflicting information on policy from the top,” said another. 

One response in particular, spoke to the impact these communication issues are having on student outcomes. “Communication from some admin to staff has been decreasing lately to the point where a lot of important information bout students is non-existent,” wrote one respondent. “Staff members have mores stumbled upon important information about their students in conversations between one another, that would have been important to be shared directly with staff members who work with students.”

They go on to note that the issues with communication make it difficult to “best help students” when they’re not aware of important information that pertains to those involved.

“Very Unprofessional Setting”

The second major concern outlined in the report addressed favoritism and it’s impact on morale within the district. “Some teachers are treated differently than others,” one respondent wrote. “Some are allowed to talk about inappropriate things with minimal consequences.”

The responses showed that administrators were at least aware of issues related to favoritism and tried correcting. “Although this has been addressed very directly, it was addressed negatively,” another respondent wrote. “It’s still a concern … Simple things like admin not saying hello to staff when they pass in the hallway gives a clear feeling of not being important enough for a leader to acknowledge.”

Building on that concern — other respondents said things seemed to improve, but then fell off. “When there are extra events or jobs to volunteer for, it seems that this same group of people always have first dibs,” wrote another. “It appears that if there is known conflict amongst two or more staff members, that admin works hard to keep those individuals separated, instead of working on getting past that.”

One particularly long response seemed to encapsulate a lot of the issues shared by others. “It is very clear that some staff members are held to one standard and other staff members have another standard,” they wrote. “For example, if a certain teacher is late they would be notified by administration, but other teachers can be late day-after-day and are never spoken to. I also find it highly inappropriate that admin are in social settings drinking with coworkers/parents and then post on social media. How can we trust that the admin is going to treat everyone equally when they are friends with certain staff members? Are those staff members held to the same standard as staff members that are not friends outside of school? Will those members be given honesty and truthful feedback in their observations, reprimanded in the same way as all other staff members? It all just seems highly unlikely, and it sets a tone of a very unprofessional setting.”

There were some respondents who said favoritism appeared not to be an issue.

Morale Suffers Due to Mistrust 

The third concern, which the report identified as the ‘largest concern’ involves the feeling of mistrust between staff and administrators. This theme showed itself in the portion about favoritism, but was a point of emphasis in the following section.

“I think this goes back to being consistent,” one respondent wrote. “If everybody follows the rules and expectations then it’s easier to trust each other. I think there is a line of grace, but also consequences when these are not followed. I think we are in-between wanting to have clearer expectations and guidelines and when things were really laid back this is where things are getting blurred. Just like students, we too, want structure and clear expectations.”

DiSanto Propane (Billboard)

Others cited the need for trust to be a two-way street between administrators and staff — noting that things progressively worsened in the last two years. “This is still very much a concern,” another respondent wrote. The language used by respondents appeared to show the district was, at the very least, aware of, and attempting to remedy these issues. Once again, though, in this response, one of the district’s principals was named. “Morale continues to be very low across the board from my observation which seems directly connected to the lack of trust. Mr. Puylara’s meetings with staff around him looking for another job several months ago felt as though staff were being blamed for him considering leaving. That was a very negative hit to trust and morale. There is still a long way to go here, but I do feel that it is possible for trust to improve with hard work on both sides. I believe that the admin we have here are good people and they can definitely lead us in a better direction if they are willing to consider a different approach.”

Another respondent pointed to issues of trust with administrators like Puylara. “It always feels like his questions have an ulterior motive,” they wrote. “[As if] he plans to use your words against you later or against someone else without your permission.” That same respondent identified other members of administration as integral to the broader theme of mistrust between staff and leaders.

Video Raises More Questions: District Responds

In the midst of speaking with community members, educators, and receiving the ‘Creating Community Feedback’ report — a video was sent to our newsroom. It showed Mr. Puylara, while serving as principal, walking around the school — going from classroom to classroom with a growler. As a point of clarification, a growler is informally defined as a jug used for carrying draft beer. 

“This is what I really do when students aren’t here,” he says in the video. “Listening to Sublime, drinking from a growler.” He then moves from room-to-room, repeating the same things — identifying the teachers who work in the rooms he’s visiting. There is no timestamp on the video, nor does it appear school is in session — as no students are visible. 

However, when asked about the video — Superintendent Mary Rotz, who is set to retire in early-2025 shared a statement: “The Romulus Central School District is aware of a video made by Principal Christopher Puylara in the spring of 2020 when students were not in attendance. The District recognizes that Mr. Puylara’s actions in the video do not depict the behavior we expect from role models. The district cannot make any further comments on personnel matters.” 

As for the allegations in the report — the district declined to comment. The Board of Education will hold its next meeting on February 13 at 6:30 p.m.