Riverhead School District’s embattled assistant superintendent of finance, Michael Ivanoff, has filed an explosive letter with the district claiming he was wrongfully and illegally targeted by Superintendent Nancy Carney because of his age — and her limited understanding of school finance.
He also warns that if the school board approves Ms. Carney’s recommendation to fire him as is expected at the Jan. 11 school board meeting, he’s prepared to fire back. Mr. Ivanoff, 55, is threatening to file claims in both state Supreme Court and with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, from which a ruling in his favor would allow him to pursue a discrimination case in federal court.
Mr. Ivanoff, who lives in Lindenhurst and previously held a similar position with the Rocky Point School District, was hired by former Riverhead superintendent Diane Scricca before the 2008-2009 school year and was up for tenure this July. He did not receive any unsatisfactory evaluations during his time with the district, he told the News-Review.
He said a termination would “destroy” his career in schools.
He was dismissed from his position Dec. 1 and has not worked since. In the meantime, former Riverhead superintendent Joseph Singleton, who is retired and had been working as a part-time consultant, has taken over Mr. Ivanoff’s role as finance head. Mr. Singelton’s appointment runs from Dec. 15 through June 30 and pays him $800 per day. Mr. Ivanoff was being paid about $175,000 per year.
“The whole thing was handled very mysteriously,” Mr. Ivanoff told the News-Review, explaining that he left his tenured job in Rocky Point for a substantial pay raise in Riverhead. “If there were any issues or problems, I wasn’t aware of it. So it was shocking. It just seemed like a crazy, drastic move by a rookie superintendent.”
Mr. Ivanoff explained that typically within school districts, if a teacher or administrator is “not a good fit” or otherwise is not expected to be granted tenure, he or she would be made aware in advance in order to prepare by looking for work elsewhere.
Reached Thursday by phone, Ms. Carney said she was aware of and had read the letter, but was not permitted to speak specifically on personnel matters.
“It is the policy of our district to require the highest standards and level of accountability from all of our personnel,” she said. “And personnel decisions are really guided by the commitment to our taxpayers and our students.”
She did note, however, that she believed she and Mr. Ivanoff to be about the same age. Ms. Carney, of Riverhead, will be 52 next month. She also expressed regret that she couldn’t say more on the matter.
School board member Kathy Berezny also said neither she nor her fellow board members would be allowed to comment. School board president Anne Cotten-DeGrasse could not be reached.
According to his eight-page letter dated Jan. 3, when Mr. Ivanoff first asked Ms. Carney why he was being fired, she responded that she “was young and had her whole career in front of her.” He said that comment came about six months after she told him she “wanted someone she could count on for at least the next 10 years.”
The letter continues: “Other evidence exists related to Superintendent Carney’s age related discriminatory actions against me that can be and will be fully investigated during discovery and witness depositions in this matter.”
“I’m 55 years old,” he said in a phone interview. “I know some teachers retire at 55, but this was a career change for me and I expected to do this for a long time.”
James Mills of upstate Mills & Associates, a retired superintendent of 17 years who typically helps superintendents negotiate or break contracts, is serving as an advisor to Mr. Ivanoff.
Dr. Mills noted that Mr. Ivanoff is not a tenured employee, so the district only has to give him 30 days notice if he’s being terminated, and he doesn’t have the same appeal rights and access to hearings that tenured workers have.
“Within that context,” Dr. Mills said. “If reasons are requested, the board or superintendent must provide written reasons. And those must have a rational basis. They must be specific enough to afford the employee the opportunity to make an intelligent and reasonable response.”
In his letter, Mr. Ivanoff responded to eight written reasons given by Ms. Carney for his recommended termination, two of which had to do with “giving inaccurate information” to the school board, the community and the three towns — Riverhead, Southampton and Brookhaven — from which the district draws students.
In the letter, Mr. Ivanoff denied the charges at length while explaining his reasons for each. Throughout he repeatedly accused Ms. Carney of a limited understanding of school finance, citing that as a main reason for any misunderstandings.
For example, according to the letter, Ms. Carney accused Mr. Ivanoff of “providing inaccurate information to the board and the community with respect to the impact of the defeated $123 million bond proposal…”
Mr. Ivanoff denied that charge while saying he provided only “rough order magnitude” estimates of costs to taxpayers, and only after all numbers were approved by Dr. Scricca.
After listing variables that could have affected the cost of the bond to taxpayers, including tax equalization rates and expected state aid, he said, “It is totally unrealistic for any superintendent to expect a firm, resolute number until all variables are determined by the agencies involved.”
In other instances, he wrote that Ms. Carney would not meet with him to discuss figures or adequately review information he had provided to her before turning it over to the board.
“Her failures as a superintendent should not reflect poorly on me,” he wrote.
The letter also reads that her complaint that he “inaccurately budgeted” for the cost of the MTA payroll tax “clearly demonstrates how the superintendent’s total lack of understanding of accounting, state-aid, reimbursement, etc. can lead to inaccurate conclusions.”
He said his figures had to do with both Dr. Scricca’s instructions and with state Senator Ken Lavalle’s assurances that school districts would be reimbursed for the MTA taxes. “[The reimbursements] is exactly the way it is happening today,” he wrote.
Dr. Mills said Ms. Carney’s reasons for his client’s termination aren’t consistent with his experience and background.
“The reasons that have been provided, as you can see, we don’t believe are substantial, accurate or in any way meaningful,” he said. “They allude to some misinterpretations which we believe are entirely incorrect and that the superintendent has jumped to the conclusion in the last several weeks or within the month that Mike isn’t a good fit for the district.
“But that’s not congruent with the reality of Mike being a former tenured financial person in the Rocky Point district,” he continued. “He was recruited by Riverhead, he performed well for two and a half years. His evaluations all reflected confidence; there’s not a mark on them to indicate anything unsatisfactory. Yet in the final hour we get this harsh treatment that lacks any empathy or concern for the welfare of Mike Ivanoff, both personally or professionally.”