Column: Sometimes school boards just don’t make sense

07/06/2011 10:22 AM |

Shoreham-Wading River is one of the most scrutinized school districts in Suffolk County, if not New York State, the USA or the planet Earth.

Never does a budget season pass when a deep breath isn’t sucked in by the SWR community, whose concerns over state aid and district finances are plentiful and often very legitimate.

Yet on Thursday, members of the Shoreham-Wading River Board of Education held a previously unscheduled meeting in which they approved a resolution to allow new superintendent Steven Cohen to start two weeks before his contract kicks in, making $1,240 per day for 10 days. The meeting was attended by just five members, with Bill McGrath being the only member present objecting to the measure. (Absentee trustees Leo Greeley and Mike Fucito opposed the hiring of Mr. Cohen and it has been speculated both would have rejected the per diem appointment.)

This meeting stinks worse than a Bubba Gump shrimp boat on a 105 degree day in August.

To understand just how foul this all smells, consider that the previous meeting — when suddenly after a couple months of searching the board announced Mr. Cohen was the lone finalist and hired him in a split vote that very day — was supposed to be the last meeting of the current board. It’s also important to note that the lone outgoing board member, Bob Alcorn, voted in favor of the per diem appointment, and it is believed that incoming board member John Zukowski, who is going to be sworn in Wednesday night, would not have supported it. When considering both those factors, it’s likely Mr. Cohen wouldn’t have had the votes if the meeting were never scheduled.

Perhaps the most egregious offense of all is that a meeting agenda that was posted to the district website made no reference to the appointment. It implied that the board was holding a special meeting for little more than to approve the minutes of two previous meetings.

New York State Assemblyman Dan Losquadro, a graduate of the district whose wife teaches in the middle school, scolded the board Thursday night for operating under the cloak of darkness. He only found out about everything after a report ran on our website the day of the meeting.

He and state Senator Ken LaValle have since introduced legislation that would force lame duck school boards “to have a supermajority vote in order to approve a contract for a new superintendent when the hiring occurs between the annual May vote and the annual reorganizational meeting of a local school board.”

But even at reorganizational meetings this year, silly things are happening. The Riverhead School District is expected to vote on a resolution Wednesday night that would pay the district’s outgoing finance director $20,000 to work for up to 25 days this year to train his replacement.

It’s as if these school boards look at $20,000 the same way you and I look at 20 cents.

At what point will the boards do away with the expanding practice of paying per diem employees, many of whom are collecting a pension elsewhere, to do work that someone else can do? And when is it ever appropriate to pay two people to do the same job, even if only for a few weeks, when the state is facing a major fiscal crisis?

It’s preposterous that in the days following the passage of a state property tax cap, and with the threat of an administrator salary cap looming, that school boards could be so loose with the district checkbook.

I couldn’t even pretend to know what these school board members are thinking, or maybe it’s that some of them are not really thinking at all.


In my experience covering school boards I’ve found that board members often fall into one of three categories:

• The rubber stamper is the most common breed of school board member and it often assumes a position of leadership on the board. It loves to say “we” when referring to itself and the superintendent. The rubber stamper laughs at all the administrators’ corny jokes and is very fond of handing out awards and praise, particularly to very well paid district employees. It fears confrontation and finds comfort in the status quo.

• The hater finds its way onto most school boards, but rarely does it travel in packs. Usually a hater is a lone wolf. It loves to ask questions and to disagree with the rest of the board on almost all matters. The hater tends to make not much sense to anyone but itself. It is very popular among members of the general public who are anti-school district, and commonly loathed by those who follow the school board most closely.

• The empty seat is the most rare of the three species of school board members, but a phenomenon that finds its way on boards nonetheless. It somehow manages frequently to miss meetings or to show up late, causing fellow board members and taxpaying residents to grumble. The empty seat is a close relative of the empty suit, a board member breed that attends most meetings but often says very little.

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