Written by Victoria Caruso-Davis Monday, 18 May 2009 17:06
The Westbury School District is again in the spotlight, this time with a petition waged against the superintendent and school board president.
In his petition filed earlier this week with the New York State Education Department, Westbury resident and attorney Robert M. Manners alleges Superintendent of Westbury Schools Dr. Constance Clark-Snead and Board of Education President Pless Dickerson withheld information from the public and fellow school board members on several occasions, including two major issues circulating within the district. In his petition, Manners is requesting the State Education Commissioner Richard Mills remove the aforementioned respondents from their respective positions.
Manners alleges that, following Commissioner Mills’ March 2009 decision annulling the 2008 trustee election, Clark-Snead and Dickerson initiated an appeal in the name of the Westbury Board of Education that was neither voted upon by the board nor discussed in a special meeting.
“The appeal,” states the petition, “was unauthorized, illegal and commenced at the unnecessary cost of thousands of dollars, all of it paid for by the taxpayers of the Village of Westbury.”
On April 20, the education commissioner denied the appeal but it was too late to submit ballots for the regularly scheduled May trustee race. As a result, a special election is planned for June 23.
In his petition, Manners is also claiming that both Clark-Snead and Dickerson have been withholding information from fellow board members and the community regarding an ongoing issue with Bethel United Pentecostal Church, which is located in Old Westbury but falls under the confines of the Westbury School District.
When Bethel purchased the Jericho Turnpike property in 1998 it was farmland with an agricultural assessment. As a result of the change within the eight-year time frame, $700,000 in purchase funds were placed in the seller’s escrow to cover the rollback in property taxes as well as interest and fees. In 2002, the Westbury School District received some $500,000 in imposed property tax monies, but, over the course of the four years it took to settle the claim, an additional $400,000 in penalties, interest and fees – some $325,000 due to the school district and the remainder to the county – accrued on former owner Thomas Kontogiannis.
Since liens cannot be placed on individuals, and Kontogiannis is currently serving time on bribery charges unrelated to the church property, a tax lien has been placed on the property. The church, however, is tax-exempt, and has been seeking to settle the matter with the school district to no avail, said Bethel’s Administrative Pastor Rev. William Cook.
According to the petitioner, on or about April 28, the attorney for the church requested a meeting with the school board in order to negotiate settlement of certain interest payments relating to a lien on the church property. The petition states that the church’s attorney was advised by the school board’s counsel that the board would not hear the matter or negotiate the lien. The petition also alleges that, on several occasions, Rev. Cook contacted the superintendent to discuss the lien, but was told that the matter was “pending in litigation” and that the “school board did not wish to discuss the issue with the church and that the board would not negotiate the lien.”
Manners states such is not true. “There is no litigation pending with the church nor has there been in 12 years,” reads the petition.
While he was aware that the Westbury School District was looking into waging a lawsuit against a private property owner, Board of Education Trustee Larry Wornum said details of the suit were vague. “There was no discussion of who it was against. Had I known it was a church would have given me a great deal of pause,” said Wornum.
Manners, a parishioner of Bethel and resident of the Westbury School District, told The Westbury Times that he “became outraged” when he learned the “school [superintendent] and the school board president may be trying to manipulate the matter involving the Bethel United Pentecostal Church.”
He continued, “I am hurt and outraged to learn that the Westbury School District is trying to collect what essentially amounts to an enormous tax on the church, which is tax exempt. It’s illegal, it’s unconstitutional and it could devastate the church.”
While the petition speaks specifically of the New York State Education Department appeal and the matter involving Bethel, Manners’ petition also alleges that the superintendent allowed the use of Westbury School facilities by friends and political allies and that such uses are subject to board approval, which was never obtained. Additionally, Manners states that on Jan. 21, the board was “forced by the superintendent and president to commence a vote [to spend] $120,000 in school funds for the purpose of constructing a press box at the high school” and that the board did not receive “any materials or information regarding this expenditure prior to the [aforementioned] meeting and requests for plans, bids, etc. were denied by the superintendent and the vote commenced by the president despite objections by members of the board.”
As of press time Monday, Manners said the petition was expected to reach the state by midweek with Clark-Snead and Dickerson being served as well. “Since the district has not yet been served with the lawsuit, it would be inappropriate to offer comment at this time,” said school district spokesperson Don Miller.