Thursday February 14, 2013

ZEKE WRIGHT

Staff Writer

CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. -- A seriously fractured school board was acknowledged during a more than four-hour board meeting Tuesday at Cambridge Central School, after not much discussion on education.

Board members indicated they were no longer on speaking terms. "If I say hello to you, a simple hello (back) would be enough," said board President Kerri Brown, calling into question the "sincerity" of a motion to hold additional board retreats to attempt some resolution.

Invoking the "elephant in the room," board member Paul Baker-Porazinski made the motion three-and-a-half hours into the meeting to hold a minimum of two retreats over the next two months, each at least two hours in length, including the full board and superintendent, legal counsel, and -- on the advice of counsel, according to Baker-Porazinski -- local BOCES Superintendent James Dexter.

Citing sportsmanship and overstepping of roles, Baker-Porazinski said the board had a "fairly long list of pitfalls."

"I think the issues that need to be addressed are serious and numerous, and I think the benefits to the long-term functioning of the board will be well worth the (expense)," he said in response to a query by board member Peggy McLenithan about the cost, which would be mostly for legal counsel.

The board held two retreats last year, albeit both without board member Tom Wolski, who was unavailable because of work and is the only sitting member to have served a complete three-year term.

"My concern here is the sincerity behind that (motion). I'm all for working together," Brown said, continuing on to say the treatment she had received as president had been "beyond disgusting."

A petition to the state Education Commissioner's office was filed last year alleging Brown did not meet the one-year residency requirement before she ran for her seat last May. The residency requirement is set by state law and local district policy and a decision has not been issued.

"For a human being, for having an opinion and sticking by that opinion ... I myself have been dragged through the mud and so have my family. For what? For trying to help," she said. "If there was true sincerity, I'd be the first one sitting down."

The motion failed 2-1 with Wolski and Baker-Porazinski in support, Brown against, and McLenithan and board member Lillian Herrington abstaining.

"I'm not even sure what you think the issue is," said Herrington, to which Baker-Porazinski read from a list that included misunderstanding of board/superintendent roles, directives from individual board members to administrators, attempts to override administration decisions on contracts, violations of the superintendent's contract, improperly convened executive sessions and public meeting violations, issues managing committees, and board members not completing mandatory trainings. "These are things I feel comfortable saying in public session," he said.

Tuesday's meeting began with a proposal by Herrington for a diesel re-fueling station at the school bus garage which was met with resistance from board members and administration. Herrington's proposal recommended moving forward with a fueling station immediately, instead of including it in a future building project that would take longer but be reimbursed 79.5 percent under state aid formulas.

"Normally something like this would go through the building committee. Basically I'm taken aback," said Wolski, who with Herrington sits on that committee. "They've been cut out of the loop."

Raymond "Bud" Durrin, superintendent of buildings and grounds, said the proposal on the table was not detailed enough to go out to bid. Superintendent Vincent Canini said he could not support the proposal, which included renting the fuel tank, because of greater liability issues without going through an architect and the proper channels. A board resolution asked Herrington to present the proposal to the building committee at its next meeting for review and evaluation.

During public comment, speaking for about two-dozen teachers in attendance, sixth grade teacher Carl Flint reacted to what he called a "sales pitch" at the previous month's meeting about confidential reporting hotlines for reporting fraud and abuse. The service would seem duplicative of an existing toll-free hotline set up by the state Comptroller's office.

The board invited the speaker, a certified fraud examiner, to present after a similar pitch at the New York State School Boards Association's convention in Rochester last October, attended by Brown and Herrington.

Flint said the presentation "accomplished nothing more than creating the impression that (fraud) is an ongoing issue being dealt with at Cambridge, when nothing could be further from the truth." He said employees and teachers were offended, insulted, and appalled, and he questioned the value of sending two representatives to the conference in Rochester: an expense that totaled $1,378 for the district.

Brown said she was concerned that might be the perception beforehand and that wasn't her intent. "I don't feel like anyone is stealing money," Herrington said.

The meeting ended with an executive session for the "employment history of a particular individual (and) employment contract and evaluation."

Follow @Zeke_Wright on Twitter or email ewright@benningtonbanner.com