Guest Spot: Riverhead should suspend principal without pay

“You can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.”

A saying that’s been attributed to Abraham Lincoln still stands true today. But the Riverhead Board of Education, under the advisement of their school attorney Chris Venator of Ingerman Smith LLP, seems to be convinced that they can indeed fool all taxpayers all the time.

It started with a letter that was posted on the district website April 30 addressed to the Riverhead High School community. The letter stated in part that the school district had “administratively reassigned” high school principal Charles Regan pending an investigation into a personnel matter. The same letter also claims the district is legally prohibited from sharing further details on the matter. So began the stonewalling and spinning of facts a group of parents faced when they showed up at the next Board of Education meeting demanding answers anyway. One of the biggest outrages that the public expressed was the fact that this principal is still being paid while being “administratively reassigned” to home. The school attorney made multiple attempts to mislead the public by claiming that Mr. Regan is entitled to be paid pending the outcome of 3020-a proceedings that employees with tenure enjoy. When the public persisted in demanding that Mr. Regan be suspended without pay, Mr. Venator went on to claim that it was not possible because Mr. Regan had not been convicted of any crime.

What Mr. Venator was failing to admit is that on June 16, 2015, the New York State Board of Regents adopted new regulations and made some statutory changes to the teacher tenure hearing process for cases commenced on or after July 1, 2015. One such notable change was the addition of probable cause hearings — aka suspension without pay hearings — as well as expedited hearings on the merits of the charges. Prior to this, except for where the case was based on certain felony convictions, educators were suspended with pay during the pendency of their matter. The amendments now allow for certain suspensions to be without pay. “Where the charges for misconduct constituting physical or sexual abuse of a student, the suspension can be without pay, provided certain procedural safeguards are observed including the following: A Probable Cause Hearing must be held within 10 days of the suspension without pay before an impartial hearing officer to determine whether sufficient probable cause exists to support the charges. If the hearing officer determines sufficient probable cause exists to support the charges, the educator may be suspended without pay no longer than 120 days. An expedited hearing on the merits of the charges must also be commenced. At the conclusion of either the probable cause hearing or the expedited hearing on the merits of the charges — if the hearing officer finds in favor of the educator, the educator is eligible for full reimbursement of the withheld pay, plus interest compounded at a rate of six percent per annum.”

So the district certainly could have suspended Mr. Regan without pay as they should have done when they first learned of the allegations. Had their action been found to be improper or without merit at the conclusion of the hearings, Mr. Regan would be entitled to retroactive pay with interest. Taking such a step would signal to the public that the district is putting the safety of the students first and showing respect for the taxpayer monies and trust while also respecting the rights of tenured employees to have due process.

It is vital that taxpayers and parents attend the next Board of Education meeting Tuesday, June 11. We must continue to demand that our Board of Education take more decisive action by suspending Mr. Regan without pay and bring in outside investigation with no ties to the school — to ensure that incidents like this do not occur again with such impunity and disregard for the safety and well-being of the students entrusted to their care.

Top photo caption: Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez, left and board president Susan Koukounas at the May 28 meeting. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)

Ms. Thompson is a special education advocate who ran for the Riverhead Board of Education in 2017.

Editor’s Note: This story was finalized prior to the school district’s announcement that an outside law firm is representing the district and investigating the allegations against Mr. Regan and his hiring in 2006. The statement from the superintendent also said: “Questions have been raised as to why a suspended employee is continuing to be paid. According to New York State Education Law, any certified employee that has tenure in New York State is entitled to due process protections. While there are limited exceptions to this rule, those do not apply in this situation.”