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Roosevelt names acting superintendent to replace departing chief Deborah Wortham

Roosevelt School District Superintendent Dr. Deborah Wortham visits

Roosevelt School District Superintendent Dr. Deborah Wortham visits the Roosevelt Middle School and members of the school board in Roosevelt on June 4, 2013. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

The Roosevelt school board, in an emergency meeting Thursday, moved to say goodbye to Superintendent Deborah Wortham and chose as her temporary replacement an administrator who began work in the district almost two decades ago as a substitute teacher.

Wortham, Roosevelt's first chief since it emerged from state control two years ago, is leaving to become interim superintendent of the troubled East Ramapo system starting Nov. 2, according to officials there. The Hudson Valley district is operating under the scrutiny of a state-appointed monitoring team.

The Wednesday night announcement stunned some in Roosevelt. Trustees, after meeting in executive session for several hours, named Marnie Hazelton, assistant superintendent for elementary education, to head the district for the remainder of the school year.

Hazelton will have the title of acting superintendent through Oct. 31 and then will be interim superintendent until June 30.

Wortham will take vacation time through the end of the month, the board said.

Hazelton, who recalled coming to Roosevelt in 1996, told trustees after their vote, "In my wildest imagination, I would never have fathomed this day. I humbly accept this position, and I only hope and pray that I will continue to move the district forward with the support and confidence of the board, the community and all of my colleagues -- and the students."

Willa Scott, the board's vice president, thanked Hazelton for taking the post.

"We appreciate you coming in at this time," she said. "Thank you so much."

A district spokesman said Hazelton's salary will remain at its current level until she becomes interim superintendent.

Her gross pay in the 2014-15 school year was $145,171 as of June 30, the end of the fiscal year, according to New York State Teachers' Retirement System data Newsday obtained under a Freedom of Information Law request. That figure may include salary, overtime and benefits such as car or expense allowances.

After the meeting, board member Alfred T. Taylor said Wortham's resignation was a surprise, then added, "We're Roosevelt. We're used to that."

In East Ramapo, Wortham is replacing the retiring Joel Klein.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, in a statement Wednesday night, said Wortham "brings the right kind of experience and leadership the district needs." She will work with Dennis Walcott, a former chancellor of New York City schools, whom Elia appointed to oversee the monitoring team.

The student population in East Ramapo public schools, as in Roosevelt, is made up primarily of black and Latino pupils. The school board, however, has been dominated by Orthodox Jews who don't use the public schools. Many parents of public school students have accused the board of cutting programs and staff while supporting Jewish yeshivas or private schools.

Elia, in her statement, said Wortham "will be a strong voice for all the district's students."

As Roosevelt superintendent, Wortham was credited with initiatives aimed at improving academic achievement. The district was taken over by the state in 2002 -- the only time that ever has occurred -- and only returned to local control in 2013.

Her gross pay for the 2014-15 school year was $235,000 as of June 30, according to the data Newsday obtained from the teachers retirement system.

Her departure comes as Roosevelt Middle School, with about 420 students in the seventh and eighth grades, is operating under state receivership. Under a new state law, the Education Department in July designated it as "struggling" for failing to meet academic benchmarks for three consecutive years. The district said in August it was moving to appeal the school's status.If it remains in receivership and demonstrable improvements in test scores and other criteria aren't made in the next two years, it could be turned over to an outside manager.

Wortham's departure also is the second big administrative change for the system within a year.

Last fall, Roosevelt High School principal Stephen Strachan, who had served in that position since 2010, left to become head of Hempstead High School. He was credited by one Roosevelt administrator with improving the school's culture in part by initiating a dress code that brought a sense of discipline and dignity to the student body.

Shawn Farnum, who was an assistant principal at Roosevelt High, is the principal there.

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