Another Changing Of The Guard In Westbury SD

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I got a call over the weekend from my good friend Lenny Pogensky, who wanted to know if the rumors he was hearing about ”happenings” in the school district were true. He was referring to what some might term, the forced resignation of school district superintendent, Mary Lagnado based on the split decision of the seven-member board of education, (4-3), at a special meeting on Tuesday, March 21, 2017, with those in the majority being Trustees Brown, Cadet, Campbell and Quintanilla.

Pogensky is one of those longstanding residents of the community, who, along with former educators Albert Handy, Dr. Rudolph (Rudy) and Francis Clark, Dr. Wendell Clement, Drs. Robert and Irene (Betty) Hilton, Rev. Bruce Dean, Al Campbell and firebrand activists like Mannie and Anne Sweat, Harold and Tracy Neil, Diane Van Nooten, Mildred and Kenneth Little, Alpine Brown et al, would hold board members’ feet to the fire, and put them on notice that fairness and transparency were expected from their actions, with the best interest of the community and the education of our children being the primary focus. Of course, at times there were stark differences as to how they went about taking on certain issues, and how they were prioritized, but the community was never kept in the dark about what was being pursued, and there was always an effort to rally people to get involved.

A significant case in point involves Dr. Robert Pinckney who was hired as superintendent for the district in the summer of 1993, but was suspended without pay in February 1996, based on a number of charges including insubordination and incompetence. Dr. Pinckney did not take it lightly, nor did members of the community, and both entities took action, Pinckney via the court system and members of the community through the Westbury Task Force, that was formed specifically to deal with this matter, and which was spearheaded by Dr. Rudy Clark and Diane Van Nooten. Task force members wrote letters to elected officials, the State Education Department, the Board of Regents etc., and organized trips to Albany.

The court eventually ruled in Dr. Pinckney’s favor, and when Robert Troiano Jr. assumed the presidency of the board in 1996, having won the May elections, the decision was made to settle the matter by bringing back Pinckney on board, but elected not to renew his contract which expired in 1999.

All the above may be characterized by some people as ancient history for another place and time, but the point I’m trying to make is that this community has always demanded transparency and accountability from its elected officials, and has always supported actions that are taken which are in the best interest of the citizenry. Recent cases in point are the push back by the community against The Westbury Bristal Assisted Living Facility protesting its application for extension of the PILOT agreement for another 10 years, and the sustained protest against the OTB Corporation’s plan to construct video gambling parlors at the old Fortunoff site on Old Country Road.

I’m fully aware that legal restrictions regarding personnel matters and termination or discharge clauses in an individual’s contract preclude board members from discussing certain matters in a public forum. So I know that the board may be well within its rights in taking this action, and the manner in which it was done. I also know how vague and nuanced aspects of such clauses can be; e.g., “Actions that are detrimental to the best interest of the school district “, and the wide latitude that it allows for interpretation. Of course, I do not know if this was a factor in Dr. Lagnado’s case because no one is saying, but what I find particularly troubling is that three of the seven board members, by their own admission, where in the dark as to what precipitated such swift and drastic action, and were just as dismayed as the public in general.

I would understand if questions about the superintendent’s performance were constantly being raised and discussed at board meetings, as was the case with Dr. Pinckney when he was given a second chance by the Troiano regime, and that there were clear indications that she was not up to the job; even so, how urgent was it to get rid of her without delay, with one year left on her contract, and with crucial issues in the pipeline including the upcoming audit, and consideration for a bond referendum. There may have been discussions along this line in executive sessions which the public is not privy to, but again, according to the other three board members, they were not aware of this.

This clearly underscores how deeply factionalized the board is, and raises serious questions as to exactly what these 4 board members knew that was so top secret that they couldn’t share with their colleagues. What could be so above the intelligence level of the general public, that they could not give even a hint that they had to take such drastic, and immediate action to the tune of over $750,000 of our tax dollars supposedly to save the district from dire consequences? What could be so urgent that this action had to be taken a few weeks before we approach the public to approve a budget of well over a hundred million dollars?

These are open questions that the four board members hopefully have the answers to, so I will not jump to conclusion by deeming their action reckless or self-serving. An anxious community waits.

-Chester McGibbon

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