Assistant Superintendent Sam Schneider, at podium, gave the school board a capital construction update in October 2015. File photo: Dawn Bozuhoski

A lot of unanswered questions remain about the change in title and responsibilities of former Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider, as district officials side-stepped inquiries about Schneider’s appointment with tenure Tuesday night to the assistant superintendent position and other changes involving the business function in the district.

The Board of Education voted to eliminate the position of deputy superintendent, Schneider’s title since 2016. He was returned to the title and position he held upon his hiring in 2011.

The Board of Education approved the measure 6 to 1, with trustee Christopher Dorr dissenting.

After the school board held a special meeting in executive session on Sept. 28, without providing any description of the topics to be discussed, rumors began circulating about Schneider’s possible separation from the district. Another executive session meeting on Oct. 4 was conducted for the stated purpose of contract negotiations, according to the meeting notice. 

District officials have not provided comment on whether the topics discussed at the recent special meetings pertained to Schneider and/or the abolition of the deputy superintendent position. Discussion of matters concerning the employment of a particular person are exempt from the State Open Meetings Law. 

Superintendent Augustine Tornatore told reporters that the deputy superintendent position is not necessary for the operation of the district. 

“Quite frankly a district of the size of Riverhead, in my opinion, really does not need to have a deputy position,” he said.

Tornatore said the district’s most recent organizational chart reflects the responsibilities of Schneider’s new role in the district. Tornatore said that when he entered the district, he took on more responsibilities as superintendent. He reorganized the district so that the buildings and grounds department and security department report directly to the superintendent, rather than to the deputy. 

“So we’re really trying to streamline things and so that everybody could specifically be targeted to a specific area of expertise,” Tornatore said. “I think if you look at the history of the district with the turnover of the superintendency, that with stability, you certainly don’t need a deputy in that position.”

Tornatore said he could not discuss personnel issues when asked specifically about Schneider.

Schneider was not in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting. 

Schneider’s current employment contract states that if the deputy superintendent position is abolished, he has the right to reclaim the assistant superintendent for finance and operations position with tenure. That position cannot be abolished without a year’s notice after being reclaimed. Schneider’s benefits and salary, which is $212,069 under his current one-year contract, will continue during that time. Schneider’s employment contracts have contained this condition since at least 2018. Contracts prior to that date are not posted on the district website.

Schneider will report directly to Tornatore and is responsible for supervising the district’s business office, the district treasurer, the transportation department and school lunch program, according to the chart.

The deputy superintendent was the senior most official in the district after the superintendent and would lead in their absence. The elimination of that position now shifts second in command to Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Christine Tona, which Tornatore said is the more “traditional” order of authority for most districts.

Tona acted as interim superintendent throughout last school year after former-Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez abruptly resigned. Tona sought the superintendent position, but the district ultimately hired Tornatore. 

Kathy Berezny, a former president of the Board of Education, called the resolution “sloppy” because it lumped both the abolition of Schneider’s old position and creation of the new one in the same resolution. She and others said administrators should not be hired with tenure. (Editor’s note: Berezny writes a biweekly community column for RiverheadLOCAL. She is not a member of the website’s editorial team.)

“We don’t need lifers in administration, we need them to have a contract,” Berezny said. “If they don’t do their job, we can either buy them out, which Riverhead does all the time, or dismiss them.”

Tornatore at the meeting also responded to questions about the new “acting business official” Herb Chessler, who he said will help with the fiscal operations of the district on an as-needed basis, particularly with the influx of federal funding into the district and with the pursuit of grants. 

“In addition to the grants that we already have, we are looking to always search for more grants, because the more grants we’re able to have is less of a burden to the taxpayer,” Tornatore said. “So that is something that we’re hoping that we’ll be able to acquire more grants as well in the future.”

Chessler is listed as an educational finance specialist with the firm ECG, which helps school districts with energy performance contracts. Chessler has over 35 years of experience in school district finance, with 20 years as chief school business official, the biography says. His hiring on Oct. 5 at an hourly wage of $125 was approved 6-1 with Dorr dissenting. The hiring happened the day after an executive session special meeting on Oct. 4.

“Acting” usually denotes a temporary position to replace a regular employee on leave or to temporarily fill a vacancy in an existing position. Tornatore did not answer RiverheadLOCAL’s questions about why “acting” was included in Chessler’s title, whether the business official position already existed prior to Chessler’s hiring or if the position was created by the board recently. No board conversation about creating a new business official position or amending the budget to fund it was held in public. 

Members of the community questioned the board on what Chessler’s position at the district would be and drew a connection between Schneider’s demotion and the hiring of a new official in one of the offices he oversees.

“It’s so unfair what you are doing to the district and to the kids,” Angela Ohlbaum of Aquebogue said, arguing that the district was paying two people to do one job, and effectively “taking away money that should be going for something else.”

The board Tuesday night also hired Volz & Vigliotta, an education law firm in Nesconset, as special legal counsel. According to the resolution hiring the firm, the board started soliciting proposals for special legal counsel services on Oct. 5, the day after the special board meeting and the day Chessler was hired. The resolution does not state the purpose of the law firm’s retainer and there is no retainer agreement attached to or referenced in the resolution. Tornatore declined to comment on why they were hired.

The superintendent referred RiverheadLOCAL’s questions Wednesday about the business official position and the recent special meetings to the district’s public relations firm, Syntax communications. Syntax provided RiverheadLOCAL with a non responsive answer to the questions posed, simply providing a statement posted today on the district’s website, which contained the same information Tornatore provided reporters at the meeting Tuesday about the district’s organizational chart.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.