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Wyandanch schools chief suspended with pay

Wyandanch schools Superintendent Mary Jones is shown at

Wyandanch schools Superintendent Mary Jones is shown at a June 19 school board meeting. The board voted 4-2 Wednesday night to place her on paid administrative leave. Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Wyandanch's embattled school superintendent, Mary Jones, has been suspended with pay from her $230,000-a-year job and another veteran administrator, Gina Talbert, has been named acting chief of the financially strapped system, district officials confirmed Thursday. 

Both moves were approved on split 4-2 votes by the school board Wednesday night, with one board member absent. District Clerk Stephanie Howard confirmed the board's actions, based on minutes of the meeting.

The administrative shake-up comes in the midst of financial turmoil for the 2,800-student district, which was the only Long Island system that failed to win voter support of its 2019-20 budget — both the $77.8 million spending plan put to a vote on May 21 and the revised $73.3 million plan offered in a June 18 revote.

As a result of those rejections by district voters, Wyandanch, which is the poorest system in Suffolk County, is operating on a bare-bones $69-million contingency budget and recently announced layoffs of 30 teachers, as well as dozens of other employees. In addition, student bus routes are being consolidated, after-school programs have been canceled, and parents are scrambling to raise money in an effort to save team sports.

Classes in the Wyandanch district are scheduled to start Sept. 4. Teachers are slated to return Aug. 28 and 29.

Board trustee Shirley Baker, who took over as president of the panel last month, issued a prepared statement Thursday thanking Jones for more than 20 years' service to Wyandanch in various positions. But in a phone interview, Baker acknowledged that financial concerns topped the list of the board majority's reasons for the administrative changeover. 

"We're going in a new direction because of the contingency budget, so that the board and I felt we needed new leadership," Baker said.

Jones, reached at home later, said she had "served the district very well, and with the utmost sincerity and integrity." 

Wyandanch's financial woes also have attracted the attention of state authorities, including legislators who in June approved a bill that would authorize the appointment of a special monitor for the district.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who would need to sign the bill for it to take effect, confirmed Thursday that the measure is under review.

"We're very, very hopeful that a monitor can be provided to the district who fully understands the operations of a school system and can provide the needed guidance," state Sen. John Brooks (D-Seaford) said.

Brooks sponsored the monitor legislation, along with Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore) and Assemb. Kimberly Jean-Pierre (D-Wheatley Heights). 

At Wednesday's board meeting, trustees voting for Jones' suspension were Baker, Charlie Reed, Nancy Holliday and Ronald Allen Sr. Former board president James Crawford voted against the move, as did trustee Ronald Fenwick. Board member Yvonne Robinson was absent during the votes, but came to the meeting later. 

Baker, in her prepared statement, described Talbert as a dedicated educator with more than 30 years' experience who would lead the district with "greater transparency, accountability and collaboration."

Talbert most recently served as assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, and previously was principal of the district's Milton L. Olive Middle School. Last year, that school, which the state Education Department earlier had classified as "struggling," was designated by the state as showing "demonstrable improvement" in academic performance. 

Fenwick, however, said in an interview that the selection of an acting superintendent appeared to him to be rushed. 

"I didn't have time to evaluate Talbert," Fenwick said.

Jones has served 14 years as schools chief in Wyandanch, and her current contract runs through June 2020. She previously worked as the system's assistant superintendent for human resources and secondary curriculum and as a middle school principal. 

Jones' career in the district, while lengthy, has had its ups and downs. In 2010, she was ousted as interim superintendent, then returned to the top spot in January 2014. 

In Thursday's interview, Jones defended her administrative record.

"I've excelled in various positions that I've held, and the district is in better academic condition now than when I found it," she said.

Wyandanch still faces substantial academic problems. The district's high school bears one of the state's lowest academic ratings as in need of "targeted support and improvement," according to the state Education Department's website. Milton Olive School, despite recent improvement, has that same rating. The district's two other schools are rated in "good standing." 

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