After decades of flagrant insider hiring, a divided Wyandanch school board Wednesday night adopted one of the strictest anti-nepotism codes on Long Island.
The new policy, passed with four yes votes and three abstentions, generally requires a board "super majority" - at least five votes out of seven - to hire any school worker, from teacher to janitor, whenever the applicant is related to a board member. The provision goes well beyond state law, which requires such votes only when hiring teachers and other professionals.
Moreover, Wyandanch's policy broadens the definition of "related persons" to include not only blood relatives, but anyone who has formed close ties with a board member. Examples include romantic relationships, work at common job sites, or mutual participation in PTAs and civic groups.
"I believe we're making history for schools," said board president Denise Baines, shortly before the vote.
Some veteran administrators in other districts question whether rules so broad can be enforced. But many Wyandanch residents insist such measures are necessary to stamp out patronage hiring that has demoralized a district struggling to raise test scores and graduation rates.
Supporters of the new rules, including a board majority that has solidified its control over the past two years, add that they want to promote fairer selections through public disclosure of any ties between candidates and school officials.
"Wyandanch has been riddled with nepotism for years," said BarBara Wright-Blue, a lifetime resident active in the Long Island Progressive Coalition, a liberal grassroots organization. Another group member, Marva Worrell, said, "We're looking for qualifications, not relations."
The coalition helped arrange the drafting of Wyandanch's rules by volunteers at Hofstra University Law School.
In Albany, state school officials are reviewing Wyandanch's rules to see whether some could be incorporated into the state's own guidelines for school boards. Those guidelines already include recommendations for avoiding financial conflicts-of-interest, but nothing on nepotism in hiring.
Albany's review was prompted by Roger Tilles, the Island's representative to the state Board of Regents, which sets educational policy. Tilles, who worked closely with the Progressive Coalition, said in a written statement that Wyandanch was "a groundbreaking school district."
Experts call nepotism a widespread problem in small, suburban school districts - but particularly in communities with high poverty such as Wyandanch, where schools are the biggest local employers.
In 2008, a major issue in Wyandanch's school board election was the fact that then-board president, the Rev. Michael V. Talbert Sr., was married to a district administrator. At the same time, then-Superintendent Sherman Roberts was under fire because his wife was a district secretary.
Talbert was defeated in May by Nancy Holliday, a retired teacher and local civic leader. Subsequently, Holliday's brother, Robert, was rehired as a counselor in the district, touching off complaints that the election amounted to little more than a patronage fight.
Holliday, who abstained from last night's vote on nepotism, has insisted her brother is qualified for a job he held once before, in 2005. The conflict of interest resolution passed with five yes votes and two abstentions.