Riverhead School District

Hiring of fine arts director violated district rule, former BOE member says

Former Riverhead school board member Lori Hulse called out the current board at its meeting last Tuesday for violating policy with the recent hiring of Lauren Lewonka as director of fine arts in the district.

Ms. Hulse, who served on the board before resigning in January 2016 to become a Riverhead Town justice, spoke before the board last week, urging members to table a vote on Ms. Lewonka’s hire so they could discuss it further and make a decision in line with their own policy.

Instead, board members voted 5-1 with no discussion to approve the hire. Board member Therese Zuhoski was absent.

Ms. Hulse said that by hiring Ms. Lewonka, the board had violated its own school policy, because Ms. Lewonka didn’t have administrative certification when she applied for the job. That certification is required for those who wish to hold administrative positions in New York State public schools, according to the NYS Education Department’s website. Ms. Lewonka did receive certification before her hiring was approved by the board last Tuesday.

“It’s not a matter of interpretation, it’s not a matter of you can get the certification down the road,” Ms. Hulse said during the meeting. “Your policy specifically says district employees — people in our district, faculty members — may apply for positions if they meet the certification and other stated qualifications.”

Ms. Hulse said an unnamed music teacher in the district — who already had administrative certification for years — had also applied for the position, and is someone she felt was more deserving of the job.

“It calls into question the quality of the hires the Board of Education approves,” Ms. Hulse said in an interview this week. “You have someone in the district who is extremely well qualified, who understands the music program and is well respected and appreciated by students and parents. And he’s passed over for someone who didn’t have the minimum qualifications for the position.”

School board president Greg Meyer confirmed that music teacher Jason Rottkamp had applied for the director of fine arts position. Ms. Hulse however would not confirm Tuesday that Mr. Rottkamp was the teacher to whom she was referring.

Superintendent Nancy Carney said in an interview this week that all potential candidates are vetted and selected by a committee. In Ms. Lewonka’s case, a 10-person committee that included four teachers and administrators chose her to fill the position. They then recommended Ms. Lewonka to the superintendent, who met with her and put her name before the school board for a vote.

Ms. Carney said all actions taken by the committee were within the district’s guidelines.

“There’s no controversy,” she said. “[Ms. Lewonka’s] certification was complete before she was put before the board. What we have is the state is always very, very behind in providing certifications and we don’t put people before the board until they’re certified.”

After Ms. Lewonka’s hiring was approved, Ms. Hulse contended that the way voting took place had violated a second of the board’s policies.

Hiring Ms. Lewonka was on the consent agenda, which is a group of resolutions the board acts on in one motion at each meeting without prior discussion. However, if a board member wants to discuss any item on the consent agenda, they can remove it from the agenda for a separate vote.

Last week, school board member Laurie Downs made a motion to have the resolution regarding the director of fine arts position pulled from the consent agenda for discussion, but her motion was not seconded, so it was not voted on, which kept that particular resolution grouped with the others. Before voting no on the entire consent agenda, Ms. Downs said she wasn’t “happy with the way [Ms. Lewonka’s hiring] was handled.”

However, Ms. Hulse was quick to return to the podium at the end of the night, reminding the board of policy 2342, which reads: “If any board member believes that any item on the consent agenda requires discussion, that board member may remove the item from the consent agenda merely by requesting same.”

“She was correct about that,” Mr. Meyer said in an interview this week. “It was a mistake on almost all of our parts … after she brought that up I went back and looked the next day and it is true.”

Ms. Hulse said she was disappointed in the board’s vote and had hoped that, with three new members, the board would take a step back and use the time to go over policies and committees.

She also said that in the past board members have sat in on hiring committees and met the people they were approving for district positions before voting, a practice she thinks could be beneficial to reinstate.

This scrutiny of the board’s hiring process comes only two months after board members Amelia Lantz and Ann Cotten-DeGrasse resigned, citing what they believed to be violations of New York State Education law in numerous district appointments.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse said the handling of Ms. Lewonka’s appointment was not related to her resignation, although she added that her only objection while she was on the board is that a member wasn’t involved in the hiring process. Ms. Lantz didn’t respond to a message seeking comment for this story.

Ms. Hulse also spoke out against hiring Ms. Lewonka at last month’s Board of Education meeting — the first time she has addressed the board as a community member. She said she doesn’t know exactly what the next steps are, but believes someone qualified for the position could bring action against the board.

“I think it has a chilling effect on the public,” Ms. Hulse said. “There is a confidence the public has to be able to have in the Board of Education. To diminish that confidence, it’s a concern. I don’t know what specific action is or isn’t to be taken, but this wasn’t the best practices.”

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Photo: Lori Hulse at last Tuesday’s Riverhead school board meeting.