A state-appointed hearing officer has rejected the Manhasset school district’s request to fire a math teacher who officiated March Madness basketball games in 2023 when he was supposed to be in the classroom, according to state records.
The hearing officer instead fined Manhasset High School teacher Brandon Cruz three months' salary for taking three unauthorized unpaid days off to referee in the NCAA Tournament after the district denied his time-off request, according to documents obtained by Newsday through a Freedom of Information Law request.
“His failure to comply prevented him from being in the classroom and the students benefiting from his instruction,” read the Dec. 13 decision from hearing officer Philip Maier, appointed by the state Education Department after Manhasset filed disciplinary charges last April.
Maier denied the district’s request for termination, citing Cruz’s 16 years of service to the district, crediting his testimony that Cruz “was in a heightened emotional state at the time he was insubordinate” and noting he “has performed well in his role as an educator and the only criticism has been his conduct in this matter and its history.”
It's the second time Cruz has been disciplined related to time off. In 2019, he was fined by the district for admittedly using “personal or family illness” paid time off for several years to moonlight as an NCAA men’s basketball referee at games across the country.
The district declined to comment on Maier's decision. Cruz and attorney Keith Gross, of the New York State United Teachers, did not respond to a request seeking comment. Maier, the hearing officer, also declined to comment.
To dismiss a tenured educator, public school districts follow a process known as “3020-a,” its section title in state law. A state-appointed hearing officer decides whether the school proved its case and if so, what the appropriate penalty should be.
Cruz had signed a settlement with the district in 2019, admitting he took nearly 40 paid days off to work as a referee. The district agreed to not file disciplinary charges with the state as part of that agreement.
In that settlement, Cruz admitted that during the school years of 2014-15 and 2018-19, he did not work as a math teacher on 39.6 regularly scheduled days so he could referee college basketball games. He falsely reported that his absences were due to illness or legal matters.
The district learned Cruz refereed games while he was out sick by a picture of him at a game, according to documents. Cruz agreed to pay a $23,112 fine as part of the 2019 settlement agreement, which Newsday obtained from the district.
In the most recent case, the district said it reluctantly granted Cruz’s request to referee the NCAA Tournament in 2022 without pay. According to the hearing officer’s summary, Manhasset Schools Superintendent Gaurav Passi told Cruz “this was the last year that he could do this and Cruz said he was grateful.”
In 2023, Cruz requested unpaid time off again to referee the NCAA Tournament. This time, Passi denied the request, because he said Newsday was about to publish a story about settlement agreements involving misconduct and also because he was concerned about its impact on staff from an equity standpoint, according to the documents.
“This was not the same as when an employee was given permission to appear on Jeopardy, which Passi characterized as a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Maier wrote. Instead, the district characterized Cruz moonlighting as a basketball referee as a side job.
The district also argued his actions were “unfair and harmful to his students” and that “the other teachers were tired of having to cover Cruz’s classes without pay and it has led to morale problems,” according to Maier’s summary.
According to the documents, Cruz became emotional during his testimony, said he would not ask again to referee the tournament and “believes the district can trust him going forward.”
Cruz has worked in the district as a math and computer science teacher since 2007. He made $142,095 in 2022-23, according to Newsday’s teacher salary database.