Friday, September 08, 2006

Asbury Park - APP - Schools super suspended

Published in the Asbury Park Press, September 8, 2006

Schools chief suspended in Asbury Park
Board had agreed to buyout, but state balked at expense


ASBURY PARK — The city school board suspended Schools Superintendent Antonio Lewis with pay Thursday night while an investigation by the state Attorney General's Office is under way.

Before the vote, Lewis and his attorney, Michael Inzelbuch, stood before the board with Inzelbuch asking board President Robert DiSanto to keep a commitment to buy Lewis out. The superintendent, 57, made $182,000 a year in 2005-06 and has three years left on a four-year contract.

"Let us sit down and discuss this in a rational way,'' Inzelbuch said.

Although the board had been set on a buyout, the state … which sent an intervention team into Asbury Park last week … would not go along with a settlement of $600,000.

Acting Commissioner Lucille E. Davy said in a letter to DiSanto dated Thursday that if the board still wanted a buyout, it would have to be funded with local taxpayers' money. The state heavily underwrites Asbury Park's school budget, sometimes funding more than 80 percent.

"We're certainly not going to raise our tax levy here in town,'' DiSanto said before Thursday night's meeting. "We're looking at our other options and (are) going to do what's best for the district.''

The working relationship between Lewis and a majority of board members came apart dramatically in the last three months, as the board became increasingly frustrated with the lack of sustained improvements at the high school and middle
school. The superintendent, who started in the district as the middle school principal in 1993 and moved up to the superintendent job in 1999, could no longer get the board majority to approve major appointments.

Both sides reached out to the state for help, and it appears the state backed the board and agreed it was time for Lewis to go.

Vote was 6-2

The vote to suspend Lewis Thursday night was 6-2, with one member, Garrett Giberson, absent. Board members Adrienne Sanders and Eileen Sonnier opposed the suspension.

After Lewis left the packed Bradley Elementary School gymnasium, the board hired Kathy McDavid to be acting superintendent at a fee of $650 a day. McDavid, once a close working colleague of the superintendent, was the school system's curriculum director until she left the district suddenly in the summer of 2005.

"It's going to take a concerted effort,'' McDavid told the public, many of those present school staff, but also some parents and community members. "We have a lot of work to do, a lot of healing to do. We have to build this district one step at a time.''

"Today we start a new path, a new course,'' DiSanto said, saying the board will work with the state team that has come in to help. "Our students deserve it and we demand it.''

The board approved many staff hirings that had been held up the past month while Lewis and the board majority were battling.

One of those positions was the high school football coach. The board would not rehire Joe Stinson, a close confidant of Lewis, after a finding a year ago that Stinson had sexually harassed a female teacher at the high school.

Instead, the board approved a contract Thursday night for Matthew Ardizzoni to be the head football coach. Ardizzoni is a physical education teacher at the high school who had applied for an assistant football coach position.

At Thursday night's board meeting, Inzelbuch, Lewis' attorney, who also is the attorney for Lakewood schools, pointed out that the state said it had not received the backup information from the school board the state needed to go along with
a settlement for Lewis. That settlement was to have included money for sick and vacation days.

"There are no records, so there's nothing to provide,'' DiSanto said earlier Thursday. "We provided them with everything we have.''

Inzelbuch said at the meeting that Lewis was seeking information on his attendance from the board … information missing from his personnel file he got from the board lawyer.

"The state office doesn't know where his entire file is,'' Inzelbuch added.

Documents were shredded

"We had three bags of shredded documents,'' board member Frank D'Alessandro responded during a break at Thursday's meeting. He referred to an incident of documents being shredded at the central office two weeks ago, which led to the
business administrator, Aiman Mahmoud, to send out a memorandum to stop all shredding.

State Police came to the board offices last week and by Friday, Sept. 1, the state Attorney General's Office served a subpoena seeking documents and records about Lewis' employment in the district and money paid to him since 2003.

Lewis was removed by an earlier board in late 2003. The state found that many of those board members were in violation because of the way the removal was carried out. Lewis was reinstated by June 2004.

He sued the board after his reinstatement and agreed to a $150,000 settlement. That settlement and another $450,000 made up the buyout amount, according to acting commissioner Davy.

Sonnier, who opposed suspending Lewis, said it would be costly paying Lewis while also paying an acting superintendent, repeating what had taken place in 2004 before the state reinstated Lewis.

Stephen J. Edelstein, one of the board's lawyers, said the state was supporting the board's move to suspend the superintendent.

Link to online story.

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Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.