The Oysterponds and Greenport school districts are either headed back to the negotiating table or to court. At issue is how long Greenport can continue educating Oysterponds’ seventh- through 12th-graders without putting a contract to a public vote.
New Oysterponds board president Deborah Dumont maintained at Tuesday night’s school board meeting that a one- or two-year contract with the same district didn’t need voter approval, but a longer contract did. Accordingly, the board not only rolled back a two-year extension ¬that was approved in June by a lame duck board, but lopped one year off the original three-year contract. The action means that the existing contract now runs through the end of the 2010-11 school year, not 2013-14.
In a contentious session lasting almost three hours, Ms. Dumont said the action was in line with legal opinions she had received from contract attorneys with Leeds, Morelli and Brown, the same firm former board president Walter Strohmeyer consulted prior to the board’s July reorganizational meeting.
Last month, Mr. Strohmeyer cited an opinion from the lawyers that the board was within its rights to extend the original three-year contract with Greenport to five years.
But Ms. Dumont said that opinion was rendered without all the facts. When she subsequently consulted the lawyers after being elected board president in July, she said she was told the district could contract for one or two years without a voter referendum, but not longer.
“I know there’s a lot of speculation that this is a plot to take children someplace else,” Ms. Dumont said, referring to a 2008 task force study she helped conduct that was critical of Greenport and seemed to point to Mattituck as the best district for sending secondary students from Oysterponds.
“That’s not my thinking,” Ms. Dumont said about moving the students away from Greenport. She said there was no “hidden agenda.” Her aim was to correct illegal actions of the previous board, she said.
“Hopefully, it will yield a better contract,” Ms. Dumont said. “It can’t be a worse contract.”
The previous board had argued that a contract that embraced a state formula saved the district money. But Ms. Dumont and another new board member, Thom Gray, characterized the contract as costing the district the maximum amount any receiving district could charge for educating another district’s students while providing no advantages to Oysterponds.
“All this does is bring everybody back to the table,” Mr. Gray said of the board’s decision Tuesday night.
There were a total of five resolutions relating to the contract situation on the agenda and Mr. Strohmeyer voted no or abstained on all five, with the other four board members voting in favor.
Besides contract costs, Ms. Dumont suggested that new contract talks could provide some benchmarks for performance that could improve the educational experience for Oysterponds students attending Greenport.
The former president expressed his displeasure with the board majority’s action. “I think this is just a dumb thing for a new board to do on their maiden voyage,” Mr. Strohmeyer said. “You’re going to wind up in a lawsuit and it’s going to cost a lot of money.”
Greenport representatives at the Oysterponds meeting — Superintendent Michael Comanda, board president Tina Volinski and guidance director Tom Rabbitt — left immediately after the votes on the contract. Mr. Comanda declined comment.
Almost without exception, Mr. Strohmeyer abstained or voted contrary to the rest of the board on issue after issue on the agenda Tuesday night. Members Linda Goldsmith and Krista De Kerillis, both holdovers from the previous board, were absent from Tuesday’s meeting. The other holdover, Kathy Syron, sometimes supported Mr. Strohmeyer and other times voted with her three new colleagues on resolutions, as she did on all five contract resolutions.
Mr. Strohmeyer accused the new board of going on a “fishing expedition” aimed at him when members endorsed a resolution to hire an outside professional to examine all legal expenses incurred during the 2009-10 fiscal year. He called it “a huge waste of money” and said he thought it was aimed at him.
“I’m not stupid; I can read between the lines,” he said.
Mr. Gray insisted that the resolution wasn’t aimed at any specific person, but cited Mr. Strohmeyer’s own questions at the beginning of the meeting about some legal expenses he said he and his board hadn’t authorized and for which the district was now being billed.
Mr. Gray said it was his fiduciary responsibility as a board member to determine who authorized the spending.
Another resolution specifically named Mr. Strohmeyer, saying the former board president “inappropriately sent a memo to the staff” in January regarding the heating system; the resolution rescinded the memo and said such communications should come from the superintendent, not the board.
Mr. Strohmeyer said that since the memo already had been distributed, rescinding it was “just plain stupid.”
At the end of the open meeting, board members went into executive session, but Mr. Strohmeyer left the building.