Sep 27, 2010 Ned Campbell Uncategorized
A flood of unexplained actions at the top of the Jordan-Elbridge School district’s administration has left community members in the dark — they’re upset, and they’re ready for answers.
High School Principal David Zehner was put on paid suspension Monday Sept. 20. Bill Hamilton, assistant superintendent for business and finance, was suspended in July and has been receiving a paycheck ever since. Both earn more than $100,000 a year. Janice Schue, former principal at Elbridge Elementary, was forced into a newly created position — special projects coordinator — in June.
All of this, and more, comes during a $2 million building project at the school. JE Superintendent Marilyn Dominick, who retires Nov. 1, would not comment on any personnel issues. School Board President Mary Alley did not respond to multiple interview requests.
More than 200 community members gathered for a public meeting Sunday at the Elbridge Firehouse to voice their concerns over the district turmoil and the lack of explanations being given. The meeting was organized by Mary Jo Wick, a JE alumna who has two children in the district. Wick is also a member of the Jordan-Elbridge Parent Teacher Association.
“I believe the most important goal of this meeting is to bring together the facts in a constructive manner,” said Wick at the start of the meeting, before introducing Zehner as the first speaker.
Following applause from the crowd, Zehner thanked community members for their recent support in the form of calls, e-mails and Facebook messages. He said he could not field any questions during the hearing on the advice of his attorney, but offered insight into a possible cause for his suspension.
Zehner said that in May he dealt with district lawyer Danny Mevec on a personal legal matter separate from his work with the school in which personal documents were shared with Mevec. When Zehner attempted to retrieve personal documents back from Mevec, Mevec denied ever being his attorney, Zehner said. Mevec allegedly returned the documents only after Zehner brought the Bar association into the discussion.
No charges have been filed against Zehner, but he suspect they’re coming. He cited the paid suspension of the tenured Hamilton on July 7, in which the board waited until Aug. 24 to file charges. Those charges were related to Hamilton’s questioning of Mevec’s billing practices, Zehner said.
Zehner said he will defend the charges “when and if they are filed,” adding that such charges could cost the district “potentially $500,000 or more” due to his standing as a tenured administrator.
“Since they have refused to talk to me for months about any issues regarding my performance, I’m very concerned as a taxpayer, resident and parent,” he said.
Zehner also noted his Aug. 24 lawsuit against the JE school board following its appointment of Sue Gorton as interim superintendent to step in for Marilyn Dominick when she retires Nov. 1. The trial is scheduled 10 a.m. today at the Onondaga County Courthouse.
“I did this because I felt they violated the open meeting law by appointing Miss Gorton as interim superintendent without holding a board meeting with her on the agenda or having a public vote of the board members,” he said.
Residents speak out
Ashley Waelti, a recent graduate of JE enrolled at Wells College, commented on the lack of communication from district higher-ups.
“Are we back to the days of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette when no one knows what’s going on? The feudal power, this little oligarchy of people?” she said. “This is a democracy. We need to be oriented about what’s going on in our school, especially because we’re paying for it.”
She expressed deep interest in the unexplained paid suspension of Zehner, saying that without his support, she would not be where she is today.
“I didn’t have enough money to go on the senior trip or the senior ball but Mr. Zehner made sure that every single senior was able to go on that trip,” Waelti said. “He was for the kids; he cared about them.”
Julie Hickey, a lifetime resident of Elbridge, said she had a unique outlook into how the district works from formerly working in an Elbridge Elementary classroom as an employee with Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES.
“So I got to see the workings of the district behind the scenes,” she said, “which made me want to move.”
Hickey questioned the spending practices of the school, echoing the concerns of many.
“Is it true that the school buses that were ordered in the spring, after the approval from our budget, are sitting on the lot painted and ready to go, and not delivered because they haven’t been paid for?” she said. “I want to know if that’s true, and if so I want to know where the money is.”
She also questioned whether it was true that the district hired a second attorney in addition to Mevec. Minutes from the Sept. 1 Board of Education meeting indicate that, following an executive session where the board discussed “further legal counsel due to the nature of current legal issues in the district,” the six board members present unanimously approved a motion to hire Frank Miller for special legal counsel for the 2010-11 school year.
Channeling the public’s input
Following the public meeting, Wick said her committee of residents would be sorting through the range of comments and questions in order to be prepared to face the school board during its Oct. 6 meeting, which meets at 7 p.m. at the high school library.
“First thing we’re going to do is send a letter to the board asking them to add us to the [Oct. 6] agenda,” Wick said.
Among the committee’s tasks is to decide on questions for which they will seek answers from the board under the Freedom of Information Law.