Riverhead's new Assistant Superintendent for Business Rodney Asse in December 2019, shortly after he joined the Newburgh school district. Photo: Newburgh Enlarged City School District

The Riverhead Board of Education hired a new Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations, Rodney Asse, to lead the district’s business affairs and round out the administration team for the upcoming school year.

The board voted 5-1 last night to approve his appointment, with Trustee Christopher Dorr voting no. It votes 5-0 to approve annual employment contracts, including Asse’s, with Dorr abstaining. Trustee Brian Connelly was absent.

Asse will be paid an annual salary of $190,000 in Riverhead, starting July 1, for a probationary period ending in 2026.

Asse 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. When the problems were made public in September 2019, the state comptroller’s office initiated an audit and the state education department subsequently appointed a monitor to oversee the district’s affairs.

See prior coverage: School district to hire former budget director at upstate school district cited for fiscal mismanagement during his tenure

According to a state comptroller’s audit of the Rochester district’s finances after the deficit was made public, district officials underestimated projected expenditures that “should have reasonably been estimated by the District’s Central Office.” The report did not lay blame for the situation on any single official, including Asse.

There was one public comment during the meeting before the board vote on the resolution hiring Asse. Yolanda Thompson of Baiting Hollow asked questions about the process of hiring Asse and said the community is not happy with the decision to hire him, citing negative comments on RiverheadLOCAL’s Facebook page following publication of an article about Asse Tuesday. She said she believes Asse’s appointment is not in the best interest of the community.

“If you do a simple Google search, there’s quite a few articles on the person that is being appointed, their history, their background and their track record, and it is not at all positive,” Thompson said. “So as a taxpayer and a concerned citizen of the community, I am very concerned with the fact that you are going to appoint someone with a very obvious, not-so-good track record,” she said.

Superintendent Augustine Tornatore said eight people were interviewed for the position and the committee unanimously chose Asse as the candidate.

Asse said in a phone interview today that the RiverheadLOCAL article about his involvement in the Rochester City School District was “very misleading” and that the chief financial officer and the superintendent were responsible for the budget failure, not him.

“You would probably assume that it was a budget director that actually prepares the budget, finalizes the budget and everything else,” Asse said. “It makes perfect sense. But that’s not how it works because the CFO would actually finalize and lead a budget and work with the superintendent.”

According to the comptroller’s report, the CFO, accounting manager and budget director help manage the district’s finances.

“The people in the cabinet — they made the final decision, finalized everything — not someone on my level,” he said. “I was a staff member, like any other finance person on the staff.”

When asked whether he was responsible for the numbers that were underestimated in the 2018-19 budget, Asse said: “I was there, but I don’t finalize the numbers or anything like that, the CFO does, not me.”

Asse said the Rochester district had financial problems both long before he got there and after he left. He also said he left his job as assistant superintendent for finance at the Newburgh Enlarged City School District — where he was employed for 11 months after leaving the Rochester district — because there were a lot of issues between the administration and the board of education. “I didn’t want to be a part of that mess,” Asse said.

After he left Newburgh, Asse was employed as a business official at Tornatore’s former district, Liberty Central School District in upstate Liberty beginning in February 2021. He tendered his resignation there in March, effective May 31. Asked when he was offered the position in Riverhead, Asse said today he could not remember. He said he interviewed for the job about two weeks ago.

In terms of coming to Riverhead, Asse said he understands that there are challenges in the community, such as low graduation rates, and is looking forward to working in the district to change things for the better.

“I’ve worked for urban schools, suburban schools, borough schools, so I understand education very well [and] know what it takes to truly manage a well run district as well as a school,” Asse said. “So I just hope I have the opportunity to support the administration and the board and the community. I’m just looking forward to working with everyone and making a positive contribution to the district.”

Asse is filling a vacancy in the district’s top business post created by the resignation of former Assistant Superintendent Sam Schneider in March. 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. Neither the board nor the superintendent provided any further explanation for the actions, citing personnel privacy restrictions.

No charges were ever brought against Schneider.

Schneider entered a settlement agreement with the district in January, which stated there were “certain differences” between him and the superintendent and school board. The district agreed to pay Schneider his full compensation through June 30 and suspended the investigation. The board accepted Schneider’s resignation March 8, shortly after he was hired as assistant superintendent of business in the East Hampton Union Free School District.

Correction: Due to an editing error, the vote on Rodney Asse’s appointment was incorrectly reflected in this article when first published.

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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