Commack board of ed investigation costs district $72K

Commack board of ed investigation costs district $72K

Trustees decide to leave Verity’s seat vacant for 2018-19 school year, will operate with four members

Commack BOE with former trustee Pamela Verity, seated front left, pictured at the start of the 2017-18 school year.

A month after a controversial investigation led to the resignation of a Commack board of education member, the price tag on that review has finally come through.

The Commack school district spent an approximate total of $72,443.24 on the four-month investigation of former trustee Pamela Verity. The board of education announced it intends to remain at four out of five members until the May 2019 school elections.

Board Vice President Jarrett Behar initially announced the district’s special investigation cost more than $60,000 at the Sept. 6 meeting. When the total was first announced, Verity said she found that number to be low compared to what she had seen before resigning from the board.

“I saw the bills prior to being off the board, and they definitely exceeded that number,” she said.

However, school officials said the district has since received additional invoices and corrected its initial estimate bringing the total bill up to more than $72,000.  

“What was not included in those [initial] costs were the costs of legal issues leading up to the
investigation,” said Laura Newman, the assistant superintendent for business and operations. “Those costs were reflected in the April billing by Lamb & Barnosky, totaling $10,585.06. In addition, there will be an additional bill of $1,798.97 reflecting August charges from Lamb & Barnosky.”

The law firm of Lamb & Barnosky, which serves as council to the district, was paid nearly $49,000, including disbursements, from April through August for work done relating to the investigation, according to documents obtained by TBR News Media. Attorney Jeffrey Smith, who had been hired on contract as an independent investigator at a $150 hourly rate, was paid $17,550 for writing the 80-page report released Aug. 2. His fees were included in the disbursements under the June invoice from Lamb & Barnosky. 

In addition, Albany-based law firm Girvin & Ferlazzo was paid approximately $13,500 to verify information that was written in the report and to prepare charges against Verity. Lastly Philip Maier, a hearing officer, received $3,600 in fees paid to attend the first two days of hearing, which did not take place.

Superintendent Donald James confirmed the money came from the legal section of the school’s 2018-19 budget. This is out of the total 2018-19 budget of $193,222,796.

School officials accepted Verity’s letter of resignation at an Aug. 1 special meeting. This came after a four-month investigation into allegations she had disclosed confidential information privy to her as a board trustee and removing school district property from Marion Carll Farm. 

Board members discussed their options for the vacancy left by Verity at an Aug. 16 special meeting. Eugene Barnosky, the district’s attorney, said trustees could host a special election, appoint a new member themselves or leave the seat vacant. The trustees voted 3-1 to remain at four members until the next election cycle in May 2019 with member Jen Carpenter casting the lone dissenting vote.

Carpenter said she worried that without some sort of election it could harm the board’s ability to build trust in the community.

“If there’s a way to get [information of the vote] out there — with word of mouth or on social media — if we do vote and do decide to go in that direction, you’re electing us to be here, share those decisions and be here with you,” she said.

Behar said he feared there would be low turnout for a special election, considering that only 6 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot on the district’s  2018-19 budget and, historically, significantly less people have voted in prior special elections.

“For somebody to serve for that limited period of time to get that low of a level of community participation, the cost benefit analysis is just not there,” the vice president said.

James said the district did not want to rule out community involvement in the decision process, but it did not want to spend an estimated $12,837 to host a new special election.

Several community members spoke at the Aug. 16 meeting advocating for a special election.

“It’s ridiculous,” East Northport resident Dan Fusco said. “The district didn’t want to pay $13,000 to host special elections but they’d spend [tens of thousands] on an investigation? That doesn’t make sense.”

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