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Questions surround school trustee's role

A Center Moriches school board trustee who won office six years ago with a pledge to restore public confidence in the wake of a tax scandal now faces public fire himself, for involvement in a school-insurance proposal that could have earned him a sizable fee.

The trustee, Wayne A. Vitale, 46, a former insurance broker, says he tried to negotiate a switch in district health insurers because he had expertise in the subject and felt the change could save needed money. Vitale estimated savings at $500,000 if Center Moriches had switched from Empire Plan insurance, used by many school districts, to a self-insurance plan.

Local residents objected after Vitale disclosed in a letter to the board that he might be due a commission because he served as a broker for companies tentatively selected to administer and support the proposed new insurance plan. Vitale's letter added that, if he did not waive the commission -- which he estimated at $30,000 in a Newsday interview -- "this contract would give rise to a conflict of interest requiring my immediate resignation from the board."

The letter was submitted to the board Aug. 31, and read in public at a subsequent board meeting Sept. 21.

Vitale's role was criticized again at a board meeting Wednesday, even though the new insurance plan was never adopted and Vitale never received a commission. Teachers, whose approval was required, voted down the proposal at a separate Sept. 21 meeting.

"Wouldn't it have been better from the get-go, if Wayne had said he wasn't taking money from this?" said Martha O'Brien, an associate real-estate broker and one-time board candidate who attended Wednesday's meeting. Another resident, Kelly Platt, has written to state lawmakers and newspapers, demanding Vitale's removal from the board.

In phone interviews, Vitale and schools Superintendent Russell J. Stewart said the district was under a tight deadline to come up with an insurance plan because it didn't know until April what Empire planned to charge this year. Vitale added that his involvement was necessitated by the need to find appropriate insurers quickly.

"I was doing it for the community," said Vitale, who added that he had "leaned" toward not accepting a commission. "The whole community was aware I was working on it."

Vitale dismissed critics as political partisans -- particularly Platt, who has run unsuccessfully for the board four times in the past six years. Vitale was defended by board members, including president Joseph McHeffey, who praised him as "our resident expert" on insurance.

In 2005, the district told residents before a budget vote that it couldn't estimate an exact tax increase, then later boosted rates 38 percent. In the wake of the scandal, Vitale won election to the board after promising to restore confidence if he was elected.

Vitale missed most of Wednesday's meeting in Center Moriches because he was on Shelter Island accepting appointment as the school business official there, at an annual $87,000 salary. Shelter Island's superintendent, Michael Hynes, a former principal in Center Moriches, did not return Newsday's calls Thursday. A Shelter Island board member, Mark Kanarvogel, who voted for Vitale's appointment, said he hadn't heard of the insurance issue, adding, "I don't have any problem with that."

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