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Curbing nepotism, cronyism in on education boards

Twelve Catholic elementary schools in the Hudson Valley

Twelve Catholic elementary schools in the Hudson Valley are at risk of closing in 2013, according to a list released by the Archdiocese of New York. (Nov. 26, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

As a former Long Island school district superintendent, I recall the pressure -- sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle -- to hire relatives of teachers and administrators.

In discussions with lawyers regarding terms of proposed contracts, several board of education members advocated for items that exceeded what unions requested -- unions in which their children or spouses held membership. I frequently found myself reminding trustees that they represented the interests of students and taxpayers, not employees.

Assemb. Philip Ramos intends to introduce legislation I support that would help curb nepotism and cronyism in our schools. The following examples underscore the need for such laws:

In one brazen instance, a board member asked to meet with me one evening to discuss the district's academic progress. After providing her with detailed responses to questions and concerns for an hour, she slid a manila folder across the table. The contents? Her daughter's resume. Her statement: "I've waited long enough. I want her hired now."

After the son of another board member did not make the cut as a candidate for principal, the trustee cornered me after a meeting and asked, "What are my son's chances of being hired as a principal?" My response? "Pretty good, if he applies in another district. But not here while I am superintendent." Our relationship turned sour after that exchange.

Another member routinely made the statement, "I'm a board of education member and I can't even get my daughter hired as a teacher here. What's the use of being on the board?" When not advocating for his daughter, he used any opportunity to bring up his other favorite topic: health coverage for board of education members at district expense. Legal counsel's repeated admonitions that such benefits clearly violated state education law never dissuaded him. He stood his ground. Tough to imagine anyone being so blunt about self-serving reasons for serving the public.

In one instance, we learned that a teacher -- the daughter of a board member -- never completed the requirements for her certification. As such, legal counsel advised she be terminated immediately. Her dad wanted the district to "hold" a position for her in anticipation that she would resolve the certification issue over the summer. When informed that doing so would violate state law and district policy, he moved to Plan B: Keep her health insurance over the summer. I said that would be a "gift of public funds" -- forbidden under law.

Never expect subtlety when it comes to nepotism and cronyism. During a discussion of negotiations with the union representing teaching assistants when I was an assistant superintendent in Amityville, I naively found it impressive when a board member advocated for dental coverage for the union's members. How refreshing to hear a trustee express the desire to go above and beyond items on the table during the process of agreeing on a contract. Maybe not so refreshing given the fact that his wife worked as a teaching assistant in that district.

After four decades in public education, I hear the constant refrain that only those who are "connected" get jobs as educators on Long Island, especially those related to board of education members. What a sad commentary on an institution that should be beyond reproach. I propose laws that forbid individuals from sitting on boards of education if they are related through blood or marriage to a district employee. It will take the State Legislature and the governor to make that happen, but it's long overdue.

To those who argue that this would prevent talented and dedicated board members from serving, I say the trade-off in terms of the greater good would far outweigh any negative impact.