Residents in newly merged school district unhappy superintendent put on leave
ST. JOHNSVILLE Old district lines and resentments, ostensibly smudged out by the recent merger of the Oppenheim-Ephratah and St. Johnsville school districts, likely caused Superintendent Laura Campione Lawrence’s recent administrative leave, her supporters say.
Lawrence was placed on administrative leave by a 4-3 school board vote earlier this month after just four months at the helm of the district. No explanation was given at the time, or since.
The board came together Monday night for a special meeting and voted to use the district’s law firm, Gentick, Livingston, Atkinson and Priore, to begin negotiations with Lawrence regarding her three-year contract, which is still in effect, and her salary, which is still being paid.
St. Johnsville resident Jason Romeyn was at the meeting and described the mood of parents and district taxpayers in the audience.
“After the meeting the board basically ran,” he said. “People were shouting at them. We wanted to know why they put her on leave.”
Romeyn’s daughter, Tamara, an 18-year-old OESJ senior, felt so strongly about the issue she organized a protest with 60 other students in support of Lawrence shortly after she was placed on leave.
Hamilton Fulton Montgomery BOCES Superintendent Patrick Michel took over the district in Lawrence’s absence. As her leave is a personnel issue, he wouldn’t legally comment, but he did clarify the situation slightly.
He said her leave had nothing to do with financial reasons, grading or promotion practices. Nor were there any complaints of a sexual nature.
With very few facts to be had, Romeyn said district residents are left to wonder why the board chose to spend their tax money on lawyers and settlements.
The general consensus among many St. Johnsville residents, Romeyn said, is that Lawrence was put on leave because of residual district strife.
“She was superintendent of St. Johnsville,” he said. “Most of the board members voting her off have ties to the old Oppenheim-Ephratah district.”
However, the board, with members having ties to both districts, also voted unanimously to appoint Lawrence last spring.
Board of Education President Susanne Sammons, a past Oppenheim-Ephratah board member, did not return calls for comment for this story Tuesday.
It wasn’t the smoothest of mergers.
Voters in the larger St. Johnsville school district approved the merger by a decisive margin in 2011, but Oppenheim-Ephratah voters shot it down.
Swayed perhaps by $14 million in state funding incentives, voters in both districts approved the merger in a revote in 2012.
The new district opened its doors for the 2013-14 academic year.
Early in the merger process, Oppenheim-Ephratah Superintendent Dan Russom and St. Johnsville Elementary School Principal Christopher Fatta were placed on administrative leave, Russom by his own school board and Fatta by Michel.
Russom later retired and Fatta resigned.
Months later, the allegations against the two have still never been explained publicly.
Fatta told The Gazette in June that he still wasn’t clear on why he was suspended.
Michel said Fatta’s and Russom’s cases are not connected to the current issue with Lawrence, but said they did add to the bumpiness of the transition.
Michel also confirmed that the state Department of Education is currently investigating past grading and promotion practices in the former Oppenheim-Ephratah district.
“It was Lawrence that brought those issues to the state,” Romeyn said. “So she brings this to the state and then gets voted out by a board controlled by Oppenhiem. It’s hard not to put two and two together.”
Both men were suspended before Lawrence was appointed.
Phoebe Sitterly, a global studies teacher and president of OESJ Association of Professionals, a branch of New York State United Teachers, said old district lines have not bled into any part of school business.
“I merged two unions,” she said. “And I haven’t heard any district issues between the teachers. I think the board is the same way. We all just want what’s best for the students.”
Romeyn said parents intend to be present in force again at tonight’s Board of Education meeting, slated for 6:30 in the middle school, and he hoped more information would be available then.