The nagging question is why the Great Neck Library Board – in secret, without any public notice – would force out (fire/remove/sack, choose your term) a long-time employee who by all accounts is beloved, who has “saved lives”, provided “safe haven,” who “loves teenagers” and has managed the miracle of actually providing an environment in which otherwise alienated teenagers feel uniquely a part, and has engendered an unprecedented outpouring of support from Levelites and parents, past, present and future.
And since this Board and acting director refuse to answer any questions – hiding behind a lawyer paid to attend the public meeting and parrot over and over “on advice of counsel…” – I feel free to conjecture why he was dismissed in such an unceremonious, secretive way.
I say “dismissed” despite the recent “press release” issued by the Library which claims that Mann “resigned.” That is clearly a term of art – which suggests that the Library was able to negotiate a severance package sufficient enough to quash any lawsuit. But the timing of the announcement – and the lack of producing an actual resignation letter – are suspect.
That’s because this decision to remove Mann likely took place at the April 14 executive session, which was noted to concern “personnel matters.” That was followed by a statement by Acting Director Chris Johnson to Great Neck News correspondent Adam Lidgett, that she had a “confidential discussion” with Mann at the end of April.
On the other hand, there was no mention of a “resignation” or a “letter of resignation” at the May 19 meeting, when it would have been a simple matter for Library Board President Marietta DiCamillo to answer everyone’s questions by simply saying that Mann resigned, instead of having a paid suit there to parrot “on advice of counsel the Board will not answer any questions” over and over and over ad nauseum. (His remarks were peppered, though, with insults to the community, such as: “I don’t give legal advice to the public, I give legal advice to my client” and ” You have no relationship with me” and telling one frustrated teen, “Watch your language.”
So one can only surmise that the silently allowing the characterization of a “resignation” was to secure a sizeable severance package – which Library taxpayers have a right to know about – and in exchange for a promise not to sue for the damage to his reputation that might cause him difficulty to getting another position, when in fact, he should be snapped up by any and every community interested in cultivating such a remarkably successful program for teenagers (The Yes We Can Community Center in New Cassel should be one; perhaps the Landmark in Port Washington, or even our own Gold Coast Arts Center, should be others who would benefit from his talents. Most likely another library community – Port Washington, Manhasset, Elmont – will have the foresight to take over being in the forefront of a model program. (Our loss is their gain.)
The “removal” of Mann has prompted an unprecedented outpouring of support – and no one standing on the other side suggesting why Mann should be removed. A petition through change.org garnered more than 1200 signatures; Levelites present, past and future, along with parents have turned Library meetings into SRO affairs; some have even tried to dog Library trustees by holding small protests at committee meetings.
“Levels was a safe space, a haven,” Alex Schecter remarked at the May 19 meeting. “I know personally that two of my best friends’ lives were saved by the person who may or may not be part of Levels any more. I am saying that getting rid of said staff member is putting minors’ lives at risk.”
Another said, “We feel we have a right to understand why you are putting a haven at risk – that saved lives and will continue to have at-risk students who can’t go home, whose parents are not in a good situation. I knew kids who couldn’t go home, for whom Levels was a haven.”
Finally (and using the skills of a lawyer in trying to frame a question that would get some response other than “on advice of counsel”), Yuval Ben-Hayun, a Levels alum now in college, posed this question: “One of my biggest worries is that it seems that the current library board is so disconnected from what Levels is, what it means to students, what Ethan means to the community since he came 17 year ago – you must have seen the phone calls, News12 articles, protests, petitions – it’s good that you understand we are upset, worried, and many are honestly very hurt, but it is not clear to me you even understand why, why Levels important to us, why Ethan is important to us.
“So I ask the board, Why do you think we are so upset? I would like to know the board has some understanding.”
“We understand,” was all that DiCamillo replied.
But while the Levels supporters are convinced the Library Board doesn’t understand what was so special about Levels and how that was directly attributable to a particular person with particular skills, interests and talents and the environment he created, and why the Board can stand behind a mealy statement that it supports Levels as can be shown by funding and its intention to hire a new Director (yeah, that might happen any time soon), I have a different theory.
What stuck in their craw was the idea that Ethan Mann actually talks to teenagers and lets teenagers talk to him, they want Levels to be a cold, loveless, emotionless place, where they don’t have the worry of someone talking about how their parents getting divorced.
Why was Mann eliminated? Because they don’t want Levels to be Levels. They don’t want Levels at all. They don’t want what the Levels youngsters want and need the program to be about – “a home away from home” “a safe place” “a haven.”
Instead of a place where teenagers can hangout and feel ownership and a sense of community and, yes, family, they want it to become just another catalog of “workshops,” a cold institutional place devoid of emotion.
In fact, the whole essence of Levels, probably the last remaining vestige of what was really special about Great Neck, got under their craw.
Being rid of Mann is all strategic, and as in all strategies, it is part of a long-term plan, initiated a long time ago, to eliminate Levels.
So, in the absence of Library President Marietta DiCamillo providing answers to any questions, based on 20 years following the machinations of the Library trustees, I offer these conjectures (and if not true, DiCamillo can rebut):
1. Control: Every significant individual not actually related to a current or previous board member, who has shown any spark of independence or creativity or (to be more blunt), not cowed to the board, has been dismissed – it’s why we went through four (or is it five) directors in the past 20 years (now, finally, after 3 years, they finally have hired somebody “to their liking”).
It’s also retribution for their false belief that Mann was somehow involved in Ralene Adler losing election to Robert Schaufeld, and getting Levels supporters out in force to lobby for adequate funding for the construction of the facility that should have been part of the original plan, adding some $200,000 to the original construction cost.
2. Money: This is an opportune time to “prune” staff – and use the budget surplus to fund the more than $1 million shortfall in the bond for the main building renovation. The Board can hide behind the fact that Levels is now closed (they have to pay to find alternate space), with reduced hours.
But it goes deeper:
3. Rein in Levels: There has been longstanding resentment and animus toward Levels going back 20 years – preceding Ethan Mann’s tenure as Levels Director. And despite the board’s protestations that they “support” Levels (as they like to demonstrate by maintaining funding in the budget and the renovations to Levels space in Main – which were done after-the-fact and begrudgingly), But Levels has always been seen as an over-indulgence of personnel costs (three fulltime, three part-time staff), program costs, and the dedicated space based on the number of people it serves. This was clear during the summer, with the outpouring pleading not to cut staff because of each staff member’s unique contribution to the program, while the Board insisted that personnel would have to be cut “across the board.”
The point that the Levelites kept trying to make for the trustees is that Levels is not a “program” or a “space” – it is the people, and specifically, Ethan Mann. Eliminating him, and you don’t have the same program.
Indeed, in private conversations, Levelites confided they don’t feel at all close with the other staff members – that the atmosphere is not at all the same (which, in a word, is “supportive”).
In fact, they cite new edicts and rules intended to completely change that sense of community and undermine all the reasons the youngsters felt Levels was their “safe haven” where they could share feelings they didn’t feel comfortable sharing at home or school.
For example, they used to freely correspond with Levels staff by email – now they are prohibited from contacting staff outside of the Library building.
Programming is also changing – they describe it as more of a “workshop” model – that is, a series of programs offered on a schedule – as opposed to a place where the Levelites can just hangout, do homework, collaborate on projects, and simply be. They point to the difference in the SAT program (that used to be offered at the Library, and the one that will be offered again, versus the SAT prep program that Mann presented.
“They are finding things to take issue with, constricting us, like a boa constrictor, tightening around us,” commented Jonathan Schindler, who added that he does not feel as comfortable at Levels with the remaining staff. “Ethan was so careful to create an atmosphere that was collaborative, supportive, nonjudgmental, where you can talk about anything and where any kind of bullying was not tolerated. He clearly liked teenagers. That is not the case with Chris Bauman (ironically, the president of the union), who “constantly says how awful teenagers are.”
4. Shut down Levels. My theory that eliminating Mann is really about a longer-term strategy to shut down Levels looks to additional evidence:
Mann was responsible for the program growing – when he came in 1998, he was tasked to really turn Levels around and he basically fulfilled the objectives that were set for him. But with him gone and with the additional rules and changes in the program (like toward a workshop model, and the absence of its own space, at least during the renovation, which could take until February 2016), this is the opportune time for participation to shrink and the board justify cutting it back further.
This was clearly the case in the way the Board managed the SAT program. Under Mann’s direction, the SAT prep program was very successful, but last year, citing the renovation, removed the SAT program and put it under the Young Adult department’s aegis. Now participation has fallen off and the Board is talking about ending the program altogether. A dry run for the bigger plan?
Without Mann, who is the pied piper of Levels, drawing these otherwise solitary individuals into a created haven, and by turning Levels into just another regimented program that is antithetical to what they need, participation can be expected to drop off. And once that happens, they can justifying cutting back resources to Levels – first funding for programs, then staff, and ultimately, to take back the space.
Because Levels space is basically the only place this Library can expand to – every other inch in the “new” building is accounted for. Sure, they will use it to hold Young Adult programs, but it will be another community space.
“The program will not change, it is fully funded,” DiCamillo was quoted by Great Neck News correspondent Adam Ligatt saying of Levels. “I’m a firm believer in Levels, I have said publicly I’d like to see it spruced up.”
“Spruced up?” Clearly, she doesn’t get it. Or perhaps she does.
“Kids are dissuaded from sharing feelings, don’t really feel comfortable with the divide between staff members – there is open hostility – and they don’t feel like it’s somewhere where they can just relax and talk out feelings,” said Ariel Heller-Sabet, now 22 and graduating college. “That’s very different than when I was there (since 2006).
“Levels used to be more of a creative space,” said Michelle Geffner, who is just graduating high school and will be going Julliard Music for performance. “There is a difference between Levels and specific activities where you show up and go home. Levels was never supposed to be that kind of program. It was chartered 41 years ago with very different principles.
“I was always somewhere – where even if I didn’t have a class, SAT or improv, I could just be there, hang out, talk to staff, play games. Now, if you aren’t there for a purpose, don’t encourage you to feel like you are part of ‘family’. What’s lost is a sense of community.
She noted that the Levels kids don’t refer to themselves as Levelites or Leveloids any more. “Part of the fun, the irony is choosing the name. Current levels kids call themselves Dumbledore’s Army – the change in environment is just like in the movie – the last remaining essence of something beloved, cherished by the community. It’s not that Levels is Ethan, they are not synonymous, but he was the last person to keep the essence of the program.”
Even though they have aged out and the changes don’t affect them personally, they say, “we still feel a sense of loyalty.
“I would love to have the opportunity to send my children to the program,” Ariel said.
The report that Mann “resigned,” does not end their fight.
“We are not hopeful that Ethan will be back, but we’re hopeful that we can change things, and work to find out what happened, who is behind this, and we won’t stop until we do.
“There is a reason why programs like Levels don’t pop up all over the country – they are hard to emulate, if you don’t have a person willing to put in that time, that effort, his ability to relate to young people, like Ethan.
“People don’t appreciate that while Ethan was working at Levels for 17 years, was giving up time he could have spent with his child and wife – had night shift – shows a certain dedication. It wasn’t like he was being paid a crazy salary. He loved this program and these people.”
The Library Board is promising to hire a new Director for Levels, but it is interesting that it took a full three years to replace Jane Marino. At the same meeting at which Levelites and parents sought answers about Ethan Mann, the Library Board gleefully announced hiring Kathy Giotsas, the director of the West Haven Library in West Haven. Conn. since August 2011, to be Great Neck Library Director as of August 1 (at a salary of $150,000).
It is interesting that Giotsas did not attend the meeting introducing her to the public. Was she told to stay away because of the anticipated Levels opposition?
In effect, the trustees – who essentially put the Library director search on a backburner for more than a year – seemed not to want interference from a Library professional as they went about the fourth (or was it fifth) plan to renovate (no longer rebuild) the Main building.
The same will be true with a new Levels Director. They want someone who is focused mainly on doing what needs to be done to save their job – which means doing the bidding of the micro-managers on the board.
The new Library Director is either naive and idealistic (and likely has been in a bubble in Connecticut unaware of Great Neck Library’s history with directors), or is a “go along to get along” person who won’t mind the micro-managing, second-guessing she will endure.
I sure hope she doesn’t sell her house in Connecticut.
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