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Center Moriches parents' petition seeks to remove new principal

About a dozen Center Moriches parents are circulating a petition to remove the newly hired middle school principal and relaunch the job search.

Citing Melissa Bates' inexperience, the petitioners were among more than 200 residents at Wednesday's board of education meeting, the bulk of which dealt with criticism of the new principal's work history.

Wendy Turkington, school board president, said after the meeting that Bates would retain her $110,000 post, which she is scheduled to start this month.

District officials spent nearly three hours at the start of Wednesday's 7 p.m. meeting fielding questions on the hire.

District superintendent Russell Stewart said Bates won the job over 98 applicants. She spent four years as a health and physical education teacher in the Commack school district before spending this past year as his confidential assistant. She also completed a one-year administrative internship in the Commack district, he said.

"I respect and applaud the voice of the individuals within the community and understand that their position is grounded in what they believe is best for children," Bates said in a statement Thursday.

"I am committed to Center Moriches Middle School and the District at large -- and the students' best interest will be at the helm of every decision I make."

Parents collecting signatures said they plan to send the petition to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in hopes that he reverses the district's decision to hire Bates.

"I feel for the children's safety. I'm terrified of what will happen if somebody doesn't have the maturity or experience needed to run a middle school," said parent Sandra Gillies-Unger, 48, who has three children in the district.

Stewart recommended Bates, and the board approved the hire at its June 19 meeting in a 4-1 vote.

"It's not all about experience," Stewart said during the meeting. After the meeting, he said, "Every time you make a decision, there is a segment of committees that might not agree with your recommendation. In this particular case, I knew that there would be a segment of the population that would not be happy."

Newly elected school board trustee Kristen Turnow-Heintz, who just joined the board, said she disagrees with the hire but did not participate in the vote.

"It will be hard to believe that Bates will have any credibility among district teachers because she doesn't have the background in any area," she said at the meeting.

Bates earned a bachelor's degree in health education and physical education from Rhode Island College, according the school district's website. The year she graduated was not listed, and district officials declined to release her age.

Bates also received a master's degree in liberal arts from Stony Brook University and recently completed her first year course work in the St. John's University doctoral program, where she is studying education administration and supervision, according to the district.

Mary Wallick, 52, who attended the school board meeting because she plans to move to the district, said she has no issue with the hire. "I think she is very qualified and you have to give people a chance."

Danielle Dench, 39, an 11-year resident with four children in the district, said she isn't happy with the direction of the school and doesn't think Bates has enough experience for the job.

Bates replaced Patricia Cunningham, who retired as the only middle school principal the district has known.

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