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Wyandanch interim school superintendent balks at critics

Wyandanch's embattled school superintendent, Mary Jones, is striking back at school board critics who have called for her ouster as interim chief of a district that the state is targeting as a priority for academic improvement.

In phone interviews this week, Jones defended her administrative record and denied allegations that her request for a pay raise was at the heart of a dispute with board president Denise Baines.

To the contrary, Jones contends that Baines and her political allies are trying to turn the superintendency over to another, more favored administrator. Both Denise Gibbs, assistant superintendent for pupil personnel services, and Pless Dickerson, assistant to the superintendent for educational services, have been mentioned as possible replacements.

"Test scores are up, the school district is doing well, so there's no reason to terminate me," said Jones, who has served as interim superintendent since September 2008.

Baines remains firm.

"She's done a wonderful job," Baines said of Jones on Tuesday. "However, we need someone with a little more strength to carry us through."

Last Friday, the school board called a hastily arranged meeting at 10 p.m. but adjourned without taking action, after residents peppered the board with questions, asking why the meeting had to be held so late.

"It took me by surprise," said another board member, Nancy Holliday, who has clashed with Baines and supports Jones.

Baines, whose backers include board vice president James Crawford, had said before the meeting the board majority's intent was to replace Jones and return her to a former job as principal of the district's Milton Olive L. Middle School. Baines also said the board couldn't afford Jones' request for a $30,000 pay raise. The interim superintendent's salary is $175,000.

After the meeting broke up, Baines said the board had decided to allow more time to "listen to the community so my board can regroup." Wyandanch's next board meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday.

In interviews, Jones confirmed seeking the raise several months ago but noted her salary is well below most superintendents. Jones also denied Baines' contention that she missed state deadlines in applying for grants.

The latest split among Wyandanch school leaders threatens to reverse recent progress there. It also throws into question the fate of a district referendum scheduled for Dec. 17 asking residents to approve funds to fix the roof of the aging high school. Good news came in August, when state officials restored two district schools including Milton L. Olive to good academic standing, following a rise in test scores.

More recently, the district was widely lauded for adopting one of the strictest anti-nepotism codes on Long Island. But Friday's meeting was marked by political sniping, as some audience members accused the board of conflicts of interest.

Baines was accused of favoring Dickerson, on grounds that she works for the Westbury school district where Dickerson is a board member. Baines denied this, saying she isn't employed by Westbury, but rather by a private contractor that provides temporary workers for that district.

State school officials have long pushed for an end to patronage hiring in Wyandanch, as well as for improvement in test scores and dropout rates. Just two weeks ago, Wyandanch leaders had huddled privately with the state's new education commissioner, David Steiner, during his first official visit to Long Island, and with Roger Tilles, Long Island's representative on the State Board of Regents.

With staff writer

Deborah S. Morris

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