Protests over school superintendents' pay

Superintendent Pless Dickerson participates in a board meeting Superintendent Pless Dickerson participates in a board meeting at the Wyandanch School Administration building. (June 22, 2011) Photo Credit: Chris Ware

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Fresh attempts by school superintendents to lock in generous salary contracts are stirring protests in several Long Island communities including Wyandanch, where an outgoing school-board majority met behind closed doors for more than two hours Wednesday night trying to cobble together a new six-figure contract.

Denise Baines, president of Wyandanch's board, confirmed earlier Wednesday that she and colleagues planned to award a new contract to Pless Dickerson, the district's interim chief for the past year and a half. A new salary figure has yet to be announced, but is expected to at least equal the $182,000 listed as Dickerson's current base pay.

Baines said Dickerson had proved his worth by helping obtain new state-aid reimbursements that, she added, would help put the district's troubled finances on a sounder footing. "I mean, we're talking about millions of dollars that will go back into the Wyandanch district," she said.

However, Baines will step down at month's end, as will one of her board allies who lost a bid for re-election last month. This will shift board control to a new four-member majority, which wants to bring back one of the district's former chiefs, Sherman Roberts.

Wyandanch is the scene of frequent turnovers in school administrations, as rival board factions vie for control of local patronage hiring.

Roberts was suspended from the superintendent's job in September 2008, after the district reported closing out the previous school year with a $2.5-million deficit. At the time, Roberts said he had been under pressure to hire additional teachers and raise student test scores.

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Roberts' supporters describe Dickerson's proposed contract as a thinly disguised attempt to obtain leverage for a buyout -- barely a year after the district gave Roberts a $450,000 departure payment. Supporters add that Wyandanch can ill afford another such payment, at a time when it is eliminating dozens of teaching positions and raising class sizes.

"It totally stinks for a lame-duck board to appoint somebody to that job, when it's going to be out of existence in a week," said Richard Hamburger, a Melville attorney who represents Roberts in a lawsuit against the district. Dickerson denied Wednesday that he is angling for a buyout.

Typically, June is when districts award new contracts to top executives. But the issue has gained fresh attention, due to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's recent call for a $175,000 cap on superintendents' pay.

The issue arose recently in Northport-East Northport, where Superintendent Marylou McDermott was criticized by taxpayer representatives for obtaining a five-year contract extension. Her listed base pay is $233,000. McDermott did not return Newsday's call Wednesday.

The issue also came up in Tuesday in Westbury, where it may have contributed to the narrow defeat of the district's budget on a revote.

Budget opponents had distributed copies of a memo from Superintendent Constance Clark-Snead, requesting a contract extension to 2012-13, with annual raises of 3 percent. Clark-Snead's listed base salary is $300,632. Her memo justified the raise request by citing "the possibility of a superintendent salary cap."

In fact, Albany political analysts view a cap as a remote possibility. Clark-Snead disagreed Wednesday, though she added she was seeking a raise, not for the coming school year, but only for 2012-13. "I'm taking it seriously," she said.

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