Springs community members, teachers and staff flooded the library at the Springs School for Monday’s standing-room-only Board of Education meeting following reports of a pending lawsuit filed by a former district clerk against the Springs School Board of Education and Superintendent John “Jay” Finello.
While a group of teachers and administrators stood their ground in one corner of the room to speak on behalf of the board and Mr. Finello during the public comment portion of the meeting, other faculty and community members were scattered throughout, citing alleged misconduct and lack of transparency with regard to the removal of Fran Silipo as the school’s district clerk and the original hiring process of the superintendent. Ms. Silipo, current secretary to the superintendent who is now on a leave of absence, filed a notice of claim in October citing a “hostile work environment” and “retaliatory conduct” at the school that led to “extreme physical and psychological distress.”
Although the claim also indicates wrongful termination, Ms. Silipo said last week that the focus of the lawsuit will be the way she was mistreated in her position of secretary to the superintendent.
Springs resident Chris Tucci was one of many to voice his response to Ms. Silipo’s allegations and the process in which Mr. Finello was brought on as superintendent.
“What happened to the district clerk is one of a long list of things that never should have happened over the course of several years here at the Springs School,” he said.
“Some people have already alluded to the fact that Mr. Finello never should have been hired without the community being involved with it. Some people say he never should have been hired with the history of the checkered past in respect to his work in Huntington,” he continued, referring to two lawsuits brought against Mr. Finello by employees of the Huntington Union Free School District alleging mistreatment. One was dismissed while another was settled out of court.
Mr. Finello was originally hired as interim superintendent of the Springs School in September 2013 after the New York State Department of Education rejected a waiver request for Dominic Mucci to stay on for a second term in the position despite being reappointed in June of that year.
A school district is required to obtain a waiver for administrators if they are already retired from public employment in the state and collecting a pension, under age 65, and would earn more than $30,000 from public employment during the year in question, according to the New York State Department of Education.
However, in October 2014 the board announced that they received approval from the state to appoint Mr. Finello for a three-year term as a full-time superintendent with a four-month waiver.
The waiver ended in 2015, but Mr. Finello turned 65 and was no longer subject to the law.
“The Board of Education conducted a thorough and extended search through Eastern Suffolk BOCES and acted in a legal manner and in full accordance to New York State Education guidelines throughout the hiring process,” said Springs School Board President Elizabeth Mendelman on Tuesday via a representative from Syntax Communication Group, a public relations company in Bohemia. “Community input was gathered on numerous occasions to develop criteria for a superintendent profile that the board used to hire superintendent Dominick Mucci in July 2012.”
“Mr. Finello was hired as the most experienced candidate that we interviewed and the best fit for our district based on his qualifications,” she continued in the statement. “We believe Mr. Finello is a great leader for our school and is fulfilling his responsibilities and we are more than pleased with our decision to hire him as the district’s superintendent.”
Longtime Springs resident and English teacher Adam Osterweil took his turn at the lectern Monday night to read from his recent letter to the editor of The East Hampton Star to state that Mr. Finello is the “most proficient, hardworking, fair, competent educational leader that Springs has seen” in his time.
“Jay Finello has been a model of professional and courteous behavior in his interactions with staff resulting in a respectful work environment,” he said, noting his belief that the superintendent was being unfairly vilified.
He also commended the school board for being “responsible, detail-oriented, intelligent and transparent.”
In regard to the lawsuit, he encouraged Mr. Finello and the board to fight the suit in court rather than settling for a monetary amount.
The heated meeting led to fierce exchanges between public speakers, prompting School Board President Elizabeth Mendelman to call the meeting back to order numerous times.
Springs ESL teacher Margaret Garsetti said the entire night felt like a “clinic for intimidation.”
“I want to make it very clear that I’m in the trenches, I teach kindergarten through eighth grade,” she said. “I can tell you that the tone and the trust, in my opinion, has been of the utmost quality.”
The last School Board meeting of 2015 also drew in first time speakers who said they were drawn in by headlines about the lawsuit, including Springs resident Manny Vilar, a sergeant in the New York State Parks Police.
“This School Board and district has a major PR problem,” he said. “I would say you’ve lost the trust of the community.”
The next Springs School Board of Education meeting will be held on January 11 at 7 p.m. in the school’s library.