The Westbury School District Board of Education is expected to hold a vote accepting the retirement of Superintendent Dr. Mary Lagnado this week, a move that has been met with frustration and shock from both board trustees and residents.
The vote to end Lagnado’s five-year contract a year before it expires in June 2018 was seen as a forced move by several board members, with residents calling it the “elephant in the room,” at a heated planning meeting on March 9.
More than 30 community members, teachers and staff members waited through a three-hour executive session to find out what was going on and though no public statement was made from the trustees regarding the superintendent, resident Jackie Caines told the board, “whatever you’re discussing [in executive session] gets out there.”
“I have heard that [Dr. Lagnado’s] contract expires next year, but some of the board wants to dismiss [her] immediately. Which would mean they would have to break the contract and that this board is willing to take our tax money to dismiss [her],” said Caines at the meeting. “Think about what you’re attempting to do. This is hideous. You want to destroy the whole community. Let her finish her tenure.”
Resident Elaine Lovell referenced the divided school board environment of 2010, saying she hoped the current school board, which has had numerous clashes over ideological differences and educational practices since the May 2016 election replaced three incumbent trustees with Pedro Quintanilla, Cadet and Brown (who previously served on the board from 2009-11), wasn’t going back to those days.
“What I see going on today is totally irresponsible and fiscally negligent,” Lovell said. “I would hope you would reconsider.”
When asked after the meeting, trustee Quintanilla declined to comment on which way he would vote or what prompted the move for a vote, but said that when he, Sherley Cadet and Stanton Brown ran and eventually won last year’s election, they “wanted to focus on performance, accountability and transparency. That’s been our overriding objective in trying to help the school district accelerate performance.”
When asked how many times the full board had discussed Lagnado’s performance, Quintanilla declined to get into specifics, saying that several trustees “attempted for many months to convene the board for a retreat to have that conversation [among others] in depth. Retreats were scheduled and then cancelled, the second time the day before and without justifiable explanation.”
The discussion about the superintendent followed a heated discussion about the need for a third law firm to serve as special counsel during elections. The board decided to let go of their previous law firm Jaspan Schlesinger LLP, after irregularities in the last election and held interviews with more than six firms. Trustee John Simpkins, who Skyped into the meeting, noted that the board went through a rigorous process to find two firms—one to handle general counsel and one to handle labor—and that he was surprised to Chandler Law Firm, PLLC on the agenda as a potential third attorney.
“This particular firm presented to the board and did not pass muster. That’s why we didn’t select them for general counsel or labor,” Simpkins said. “This is a fiscally irresponsible decision to retain a third firm.”
Simpkins went onto say that it was “egregious” to consider Chandler, as they had represented trustee Cadet in the last election.
“It raises to me a number of concerns of potential impropriety. That’s not the way we should be doing business,” Simpkins said. “Why are we spending [money] this way? It makes no sense at all.”
Cadet said she would recuse herself from the vote. Brown indicated that trustees Dickerson, Simpkins and Bolling had left a prior executive meeting before the discussion of adding Chandler as a third law firm, which was added to the agenda with a majority vote by Quintanilla, Brown, Cadet and trustee Karin Campbell. Residents, along with Simpkins and Dickerson, pressed Quintanilla, Brown and Cadet (Campbell was not at the public portion of the planning meeting), as to why there was a need for the third firm.
Quintanilla said Chandler had experience dealing with high-minority districts, adding that at last year’s election, non-English speaking and first-time voters were disrespected.
“People in charge of polling stations were misdirecting those individuals,” Quintanilla said. “We felt those individuals were not being treated fairly.”
Robert Troiano Jr., a former school board member/president and Nassau County legislator, asked if an RFP or bid process was followed to choose Chandler. Dickerson and Simpkins said there was no RFP process for this particular job and Brown said while the board “did not conduct interviews [with other firms] for this particular service,” there was “thorough discussion.” Bolling said Chandler was charging $2,500 each month, plus $250 per hour.
The appointment of Chandler Law Firm will be voted on during the March 16 board meeting.