In what one Board of Education member described as a “scorched Earth” policy, four new board members got to work implementing changes to the district minutes after they were sworn into office Thursday night, voting in favor of cancelling numerous professional contracts and formally declaring their intent to search for a new superintendent.
John Lamela, who was sworn into office alongside Stephanie Wohlrab, Victoria Pakala and George White, was elected board president – ousting Sharon Cantillo – and Wohlrab was elected vice president, supplanting John Barton.
The fireworks of the meeting began after a number of routine votes, when Pakala motioned to add six items to the meeting’s agenda. The items, which were not provided to members of the public, were distributed to board members, at least two of whom said they were not privy to the information.
The first item was to appoint Nicholas C. Montenegro to act as board attorney for 45 days, with charges not to exceed $16,500. Montenegro, who is aligned with the Democratic party, previously served as board attorney until Jack Sahradnik took his place in 2011.
Sahradnik currently has a contract which runs through the current school year, and his status essentially remains in limbo. Lamela said during the 45 day period for which Montenegro has been appointed, the board will seek proposals for board counsel and ultimately award a contract. Lamela, in statements made during the meeting, indicated that both Sahradnik and Montenegro were acting as board attorneys.
The motion to appoint Montenegro passed.
Another motion by Pakala asked Montenegro’s office to “review options to terminate” suspended superintendent Walter Uszenski, who has been indicted on charges of theft and official misconduct for allegedly providing educational services to his grandchild for which the child was not qualified to receive.
Uszenski has not been convicted of any crime, but has been suspended without pay since a grand jury handed up the indictment. If exonerated, or if the charges are dropped, Uszenski would potentially have to be restored as superintendent.
Still, a third motion by Pakala formally tasked district Business Administrator James Edwards with advertising for the superintendent’s position, including making a posting on the district’s website and advertising the job in the district’s official newspaper.
Additional motions directed Montenegro to review all of Sahradnik’s files on legal matters currently pending before the district and reporting back on the status of each item at the board’s Feb. 4 meeting, which was added to the calendar with the support of the new board members.
Additional motions provided 30 day termination notices to numerous district professionals, including labor counsel, bond counsel, special education counsel, auditor, architect, engineer, school physician and two insurance brokers, and to seek proposals to fill all of the positions.
“I’m concerned with this scorched earth [policy], and what the ramifications to the district will be legally,” said board member Karyn Cusanelli, who asked multiple times whether terminating existing contracts expose the taxpayers to liability, and if projects underway with current professionals, such as architects, would be delayed.
Montenegro, speaking from the audience, said all of the district’s contracts, with the exception of Sahradnik’s, including 30 day termination clauses.
Lamela then said projects in progress would be continued by current contractors.
“Right now, that termination would not include any projects in progress,” Lamela said.
Cusanelli motioned that the terminations be held so they could be reviewed by Sahradnik and other board members, and so financial disclosure forms could be obtained from new board members to ensure no conflicts of interest exist with eventual appointees.
“I certainly wouldn’t want to see us with boatloads of legal fees because we’re not doing things properly,” Cusanelli said.
The motion to hold the items failed, and the termination notices were approved, with the exception of Sahradnik.
Edwards said disclosure forms for new board members are due Feb. 1, which is before the new contracts would be awarded.
Pakala also successfully motioned for the Jan. 28 board meeting to be rescheduled for Jan. 14, and a meeting to be added Feb. 4.
“We’d like to get established next week, and we’d like the February 4th meeting for receipt of additional agenda items,” she said.
Lamela, through the meeting, spoke apologetically for the lack of notice with regard to the six additional agenda items, but said each represented the platform he and his running mates campaigned on.
“Our biggest focus should be rebuilding that slate and bringing respectability and accountability back to this district,” Lamela said toward the end of the meeting, stating further that his goal is to have the district characterized by “pride, accountability, transparency and respect.”