Heather Magill who was appointed to the Center Moriches school...

Heather Magill who was appointed to the Center Moriches school board. Credit: Jennett Meriden Russell

An attorney and former PTA officer has won appointment to Center Moriches' school board with a pledge to bring "a new set of eyes and ears" to a district shaken by financial controversies.

Heather Magill was named to the position in a 4-0 board vote Wednesday night, replacing Wayne Vitale, who resigned late last week after taking an $87,000-a-year job as Shelter Island's school business official. Vitale, a former insurance broker, had become entangled in public debate in recent weeks over his unsuccessful efforts to help negotiate a change in the Center Moriches district's health insurance.

Magill, in a phone interview Thursday, said the timing of Vitale's departure was "unfortunate" but expressed the belief that "he had the community's best interest at heart." She indicated that the 1,670-student district must focus on fiscal issues in the months ahead because, like all school systems, it faces a looming 2 percent state tax cap.

"I don't think that looking backward can ever help us move forward," said Magill, 35, whose three children attend district schools.

Vitale disclosed at the end of August that he might collect a broker's commission estimated at $30,000 if Center Moriches adopted his proposal to switch insurance plans. Three weeks later, local teachers rejected the plan, and the veteran board member never got a commission.

Vitale has insisted that his negotiations with potential insurers were motivated by the hope of saving the district money, not by any desire for personal gain. But some teachers, who have clashed with Vitale over pay issues in the past, have said his involvement was one factor in their decision to vote "no."

Joseph McHeffey, president of Center Moriches' board, said Magill "brings a lot" to that panel with her two years of experience as a district PTA officer and her role as a parent of young students. McHeffey, also an attorney and a board member since 1995, had urged Magill to accept the board post.

Some community activists voice doubt that Magill will shake up the status quo -- a goal they consider vital.

"We need checks and balances," said Kelly Platt, who has run unsuccessfully for the board four times in the last six years.

Earlier this month, state auditors criticized Center Moriches for sloppy financial practices, including $2.6 million in overspending on certain budget lines that was not fully corrected until months later. In addition, in 2005 many district homeowners were stunned by a 38 percent tax hike that was not made known until months after an annual budget vote.

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