Riverhead Central School District's administrative office on Osborn Avenue. File photo: Denise Civiletti

The Riverhead Board of Education is scheduled to vote tonight on the hiring of an assistant superintendent for business who was the budget director in the Rochester City School District during a fiscal mismanagement scandal three years ago that left the district with a nearly $30 million budget deficit, even after drawing $15 million from its fund balance.

Rodney Asse was the Rochester school district budget director from January 2017 until his resignation in September 2019, immediately after the multimillion deficit became public. The revelations sparked calls for investigations and led to an audit by the Office of the State Comptroller, the appointment of a state monitor and an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Rochester district’s chief financial officer resigned in November 2019 and the district superintendent resigned in January 2020.

Since February 2021, Asse has been employed as a business official at Riverhead School Superintendent Augustine Tornatore’s former district, Liberty Central School District in upstate Liberty, where he was first hired on a per-diem basis as the district’s interim school business official. He was hired to a permanent full-time position June 1 last year and signed a one-year employment contract at a salary of $155,000.

Asse resigned from the Liberty school district March 22, effective May 31.

According to tonight’s agenda, Asse will be paid an annual salary of $190,000 in Riverhead, starting July 1.

The Office of the State Comptroller found Rochester’s 2018-2019 adopted operating budget was not structurally balanced, according to an audit report released in April 2020.

The board and district officials failed to use accurate estimates of appropriations in the 2018-19 budget — severely under budgeting and overspending various major budget lines. Rochester’s audited financial statements for the period ending June 30, 2019 state that expenditures exceeded revenues by $42.4 million, the audit report states. The adopted budget included $20 million of appropriated fund balance in an effort to close the budget gap, according to the report. “However, the board amended this amount downward mid-year to $15 million, resulting in an unplanned general fund deficit of $27.4 million,” the report states.

“As a result of the District’s budgeting practices, the general fund unrestricted fund balance has been completely depleted and at the 2019 year-end had a deficit of $8,916,640,” the comptroller’s audit found.

The comptroller’s report did not lay blame for the situation on any single official, including Asse, but said all of the appropriations under budget “should have reasonably been estimated by the District’s Central Office,” the report states. The comptroller also noted the district lacked a comprehensive written multi-year financial plan.

After resigning from Rochester, Asse was immediately hired by the Newburgh Enlarged City School District as assistant superintendent for finance. He held that position for 11 months, starting Oct. 1, 2019. Asse submitted his resignation to the Newburgh board on May 18, 2020, and the board accepted it on May 20, 2020, effective Aug. 29, 2020. There was no public discussion or explanation given by the board, according to the board’s meeting minutes.

In an interview today, Tornatore said he understood there were issues with Rochester at the time Asse was the budget director, but said Asse was also not in charge or the final decision-maker.

“There were issues with Rochester, but he was not the top financial person in the district at that time,” Tornatore said. “It would be very different if he was the assistant superintendent and in the superintendent’s cabinet, or if he was the superintendent.”

Tornatore said Asse did “a fantastic job” at Liberty while Tornatore was superintendent there, from February to June last year. Tornatore said he did not want to influence the district’s hiring committee in its decision for filling the role and said he gave his opinion after the whole hiring committee already chose Asse.

“Any references we spoke to we’ve vetted. Additionally, he has a good reputation with the other business officials who I’ve spoken to in the area, has a good reputation with [the Association of School Business Officials] and he’s done some really great work,” Tornatore said.

Riverhead is looking to fill a vacancy in the district’s top business post created by the resignation of former Assistant Superintendent Sam Schneider in March, when he was hired as assistant superintendent of business in the East Hampton School District.

Schneider was hired by Riverhead as assistant superintendent of finance and operations in 2011 and promoted to deputy superintendent in 2016.

Last October, Schneider was “reassigned” out of the business office and the deputy superintendent position was abolished. He remained in the assistant superintendent post, as per his employment contract. The board hired an acting business official last fall to fill Schneider’s role and as of Dec. 1, an acting assistant superintendent for finance, through June 30.

The board initiated an investigation into unspecified allegations against Schneider, hiring the law firm Volz and Vigliotta to conduct the investigation. It also hired the accounting firm Nawrocki Smith to conduct a forensic audit. To date, the district has paid the law firm $29,774.50 and the accounting firm $7,375, according to the district treasurer’s reports.

Neither the board nor the superintendent provided any further explanation for the actions, citing personnel privacy restrictions.

No charges were ever brought against Schneider. The school board has not yet accepted any audit report from Nawrocki Smith or publicly discussed the results of the audit.

A settlement agreement with Schneider signed by the district in January, cited “certain differences” between him and the superintendent and school board. The district agreed to pay Schneider his full compensation through June 30.

The agreement also includes a statement to be given to press after Schneider’s resignation. The statement says “the District conducted an investigation into an allegation lodged against Mr. Schneider by an employee of the District; the District has determined that there is no meaningful reason to continue that investigation.”

Correction: This article incorrectly identified the Liberty Central School District as Liberty K-12, and as being in Newburgh in upstate New York. It is in Liberty, New York.

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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. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com