SWR school board battles over extra pay for new supe

07/07/2011 10:32 AM |


Shoreham-Wading River school board members battled at a special meeting Wednesday over an approved measure allowing new superintendent Steven Cohen to begin work on a per diem basis two weeks before his contract starts August 1.

Board member Bill McGrath called the special meeting for, according to the agenda, the election of a president and vice-president for the 2011-12 school year, two items that are traditionally placed on the reorganizational meeting’s agenda. Both those items were tabled until the reorganizational meeting on July 12 after superintendent Harriet Copel said the elections must occur at the reorganizational meeting in order to be legal.

Mr. McGrath said he called the special meeting to oust the board’s current officers, for whom he said he has lost trust.

“I was upset and frustrated,” Mr. McGrath said. “I lost confidence in our officers and wanted to replace them, pure and simple.”

Board president Jack Costas and vice president Marie Lindell were both absent from the meeting. Dr. Copel said the two were gone due to work-related reasons. Ms. Lindell, a pilot, phoned a reporter prior to the meeting to say she was in San Francisco, and that she suspected the meeting had been purposely scheduled for a night she couldn’t make it.

“In this case we’ve stepped into something we can’t get off our shoe,” Mr. McGrath said in reference to the contract that allows Dr. Cohen to begin work two weeks for $8,750 total.

To exemplify the extent of what he described as a mistake, he pointed to the recent legislation state Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Assemblyman Dan Losquadro (R-Shoreham) introduced that would require lame duck school boards to have a supermajority vote to approve any contract for a superintendent hired between the May budget vote and a district’s annual reorganizational meeting.

The legislation was proposed earlier this week partly in response to the Shoreham-Wading River school board’s approval of Dr. Cohen’s per diem contract, as well as his being hired by a 4-3 vote. A superintendent in Wyandanch schools was also recently hired by a 4-3 vote, the lawmakers had pointed out.

“We’ve lost two of our staunchest allies,” Mr. McGrath said of Mr. LaValle and Mr. Losquadro, who showed up at the meeting last week to publicly scold the board members for what he later described in the proposed legislation as “taxpayer abuse.”

Board member Rich Pluschau countered Mr. McGrath’s remarks, calling Dr. Cohen’s contract customary.

“It is the furthest thing from a taxpayer abuse,” Mr. Pluschau said.

In a statement e-mailed to members of the community Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Costas also defended Dr. Cohen’s contract.

“This gives the new superintendent time to become familiarized with district operations, procedures, personnel, buildings, BOE, current issues, history, etc,” Mr. Costas wrote. “No matter how qualified or competent an individual is, he or she still needs to learn the intricacies of a new organization.”

Board member Leo Greeley — who has been criticized by fellow board members and community residents for failing to be present at many school board meetings and being completely absent from the superintendent candidate interviewing process — said the dates in which Dr. Cohen will begin work early do not allow for optimal training.

He noted, and Dr. Copel confirmed, that Dr. Copel will only be in the district for four of the 10 days Dr. Cohen will be working early.

Mr. Pluschau responded that Dr. Cohen would surely make the most of the four days with Dr. Copel and would have many other administrators from which to learn on the other days.

A handful of residents at the meeting spoke out in disgust over the way the board was speaking to each other — which got tense and accusatory at times — the cold welcome Dr. Cohen was receiving into the district and the bickering over Dr. Cohen’s contract.

Some were upset with Mr. McGrath for scheduling a meeting where essentially no action was taken and overstepping what the board had previously agreed upon.

“I’m sickened by some sitting here in tonight’s meeting,” said Winifred Pardo of Shoreham. “It is a disgraceful ploy to tamper with what was already agreed upon when they happen to be in the minority.”

“You’re messing with my rights and every other citizen in this district who votes that puts that majority there to speak and act for us,” she finished to a loud applause from the meeting’s audience.

Complaint over booster club financials

Also at the meeting, Miriam Logan of Wading River complained to the board over some of the district’s financial actions with regard to the Wildcat Athletic Club (WAC), a 501c3 private charity that supports the district’s athletic activities, primary through fundraisers.

After obtaining documents through Freedom of Information Law requests over the last year, she said she found that the district paid $30,000 for an audit of WAC. She also said she found that the district paid $30,000 so that WAC could hold a fundraiser on school grounds and that there are $400,000 worth of missing federal tax documents, receipts and bank checks.

She said her documents show that WAC, which began in 2000, didn’t file taxes with the IRS until 2006.

“This is a failure of our administration to administer,” she said. “I think there’s a problem with either the filing system, the administration or our attorneys.”

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