The newly constituted Riverhead Board of Education at its first meeting of 2021-2022. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Like many Riverhead residents this week, we are appalled by how the school district administration and board of education handled whatever the heck transpired with the district’s top business official.

Rumors had been flying about Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider for more than two weeks by the time the school board on Tuesday night abolished his position and reassigned him to an assistant superintendent post — with tenure and without any explanation.

Nary a day had passed without some district resident calling, texting or Facebook-messaging one of us asking if we’d heard this or that about Schneider, who was said to be out of the office for this or that reason. Over the years, there have been so many administrators and teachers assigned to their homes or some random office, I’ve honestly lost count. I didn’t know if the rumors about Schneider working remotely were true, but I did know two things: There was no chance I’d get solid information about it from any district official; and sooner or later, whatever was going on, if anything, would come out — well, to some extent, anyway.

When the school board notified the public of a special “executive session only” meeting on Sept. 28, without stating why the meeting would be held behind closed doors, the rumor mill really got cranking. And when, three days later, the district clerk posted a notice of another “executive session only” special meeting for Oct. 4 — to discuss contract negotiations — the rumor mill went into overdrive.

Add to that the superintendent’s message to the community, posted on the district website in between the two special meetings, stating that personnel matters cannot be publicly discussed and he would give the public as much information as he could as soon as he could.

At the meeting on Tuesday the 12th, the board acted, without explanation — changing Schneider’s title and responsibilities, though not his salary, and granting him tenure.

On Tuesday the board also appointed, without comment or explanation, another person to the position of “acting” business official to be paid $125 per hour.

Setting aside whatever it was that triggered Schneider’s apparent demotion, the appointment of an “acting” business official raised a few very logical questions that deserve to be answered.

First, is there a “business official” position in the district to begin with? How can we have an “acting” business official unless there’s a position by that name? As far as we know, no one held that position before all this — whatever it was — transpired. If there was no “business official” position before, when was it created? And how is it being funded? This would require some kind of amendment to the adopted budget, it seems. How much of an amendment? In other words, what’s this going to cost taxpayers?

We asked these questions, very directly and repeatedly, of the new superintendent on Wednesday. We got nothing but a runaround: non-responsive answers, a referral to the prepared statement posted on the district website, and a non-response “response” from the district’s public relations firm that referred us to the same prepared statement that had nothing to do with the questions we were asking. The essence of these “responses” is they can’t discuss “personnel.”

I call BULLSH*T.

Our questions — did the business official position exist before Oct. 12, when was it created, how is it funded, and how much is it funded — are not questions about “personnel.” They are questions about budget matters and are a direct concern of district taxpayers, who have the right to get answers.

The district’s attempt to hide behind “personnel” is laughable. No matter what the district tries to tell us, and no matter what their paid mouthpiece (read: lawyer) will say at the district’s request at the next board meeting, “personnel” is not a blank check to hold closed-door discussions.

Go read the Open Meetings Law. There are topics exempt from public discussion, including matters specifically pertaining to the employment of a particular person. There is no “personnel” exemption. Creating a new position and certainly funding that new position, are not covered by any exemption.

The public has a right to know how public money is being spent. The public has a right to get direct answers to direct questions about how its money is being spent. The fact that we are paying large sums of money to administrators, lawyers and public relations firms to deny us the right to those answers is just reprehensible.

And it’s beyond reprehensible for the people we elect as “trustees” to oversee how our money is spent on educating our children, to hide behind a wall erected by well-paid administrators, lawyers and a public relations firm. That’s especially true when you consider that the president of this board is a former self-styled community “watchdog” who spent many years on the other side of the podium hollering at past boards for doing exactly what she’s been doing now that she’s got a seat on the dais.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.