New Riverhead school board members Ron Fisher and Byron Perez took their seats last night after being sworn in by district clerk Barbara O’Kula.
Fisher and Perez fill the vacancies left by the abrupt resignations in June of Ann Cotten-DeGrasse and Amelia Lantz, who left the board in protest over the district’s handling of appointments to administrative positions and the granting of leaves of absence.
Their first meeting was School Superintendent Nancy Carney’s last. Carney is retiring Aug. 30 from the post she’s held for seven years. She announced her retirement in December. Her successor, Dr. Aurelia Henriquez, who was in the audience last night, officially starts the job on Aug. 31.
The board last night filled two new administrative positions, a director of fine arts, Lauren Lewonka of Miller Place and a director of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), Kathleen Scholand of Mattituck. Each will be paid an annual salary of $132,085.
The district has not had a director of fine arts since 2013, when Sean O’Hara, who held that post, was named assistant principal at the high school. There has never been a STEM director in Riverhead. The position of director of mathematics, held by Robert Brandi, has been eliminated. Brandi has returned to his classroom teaching position.
Scholand is a secondary mathematics teacher in the Mattituck-Cutchogue school district, who briefly taught in Riverhead in the mid-1980s.
She said she intends to make a very conscious effort to encourage girls to study STEM subjects. She has done a lot of work developing math standards for the state, she said in an interview last nigh.
A Mattituck native, Scholand attended St. Isidore’s school in Riverhead for eight years, graduating in 1976, before attending Mattituck High School. “I expect to see a lot of old friends in Riverhead,” she said.
Lewonka comes to Riverhead from the Sachem school district, where she grew up and attended public schools herself. She has taught visual arts in Sachem for 11 years and was this year named New York State Art Educator of the Year for Suffolk County by the N.Y. State Art Teachers Association. Lewonka also has a background in music. She is an All-State vocalist and flutist.
Lewonka’s appointment drew searing criticism last night from former school board member Lori Hulse, who resigned from the board in January 2016 following her election as Riverhead Town Justice.
Hulse blasted the board for choosing Lewonka over a candidate who already works for the district. She did not name him, but high school music teacher Jason Rottkamp had applied for the post, according to school board president Greg Meyer.
Hulse said appointing Lewonka, who did not have an administrative certification when she applied for the job — though she received it before her appointment date — violated an adopted school board policy.
Lewonka was the recommendation of a search committee of 10 people appointed to fill the position, Meyer said.
“This candidate was not qualified,” Hulse said at the podium, standing just a few feet away from where Lewonka sat in the audience.
“You can correct that error,” Hulse said, urging the board to table the resolution appointing Lewonka. “Don’t contravene your own policy. I don’t think you have any other position you can legally take.”
Board member Laurie Downs moved to separate the resolution appointing Lewonka from the consent agenda — a batch of resolutions the board acts on in one motion at each board meeting. Her motion did not have a second and was not voted on. Downs cast the lone vote against the entire consent agenda, which passed 5-1. (Recently named board member Therese Zuhoski was absent from the meeting.)
“I’m not happy the way this was handled,” Downs said before voting no. “I don’t think this was done properly.”
Hulse took the podium again to complain that the board did not follow its adopted policy for separating resolutions from the consent agenda.
“You don’t have to vote to have something pulled off the consent agenda,” Hulse asserted. She referred the board to policy number 2342, under which she said “one person can remove something from the consent agenda” without a vote of the board.
Greg Fischer of Calverton, who has run and lost school board elections, including the last one in May, and who applied to be appointed to one of the vacant seats, lambasted the board for the procedure it followed to fill the vacancies.
“There was no public meeting, no public discussion, and no opportunity for the public to comment,” Fischer said. “Your procedure violated the Open Meetings Law,” he told board members.
Fischer also criticized the board for having the two new appointees sit in on the executive session that took place before last night’s public meeting — before they were sworn into office. He said that violates the Open Meetings Law too.
“We can invite anyone we want into an executive session,” Meyer answered.
The board last night also appointed a new firm to handle security in the district, MR Safety Consulting. The firm is owned by Michael Rodriguez, currently a security guard in the Brentwood school district, Meyer said in an interview.
“We put out an RFP and he was the only one who applied,” Meyer said. He will be on-site in Riverhead full time, Meyer said.
The district’s last security firm “decided to move on,” Meyer said. The district outsourced security management after the brief tenure of James Graham, who held the post for less than six months in 2014-2015.
“We had already exhausted the Civil Service list and that’s why we chose an outside firm last year,” Meyer said.
The incoming superintendent, who is currently an assistant superintendent in the Brentwood school district, knows Rodriguez and gave him a good reference, Meyer said.
Rodriguez and his partner Byron Craig were both in the audience last night.
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