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Wolpin appeal sparks last round of school board electioneering

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MASSENA - Massena Central School officials say that an appeal filed by resident Robin M. Wolpin with the state Education Department was timed to coincide with today’s school budget votes.

“The petition is suspiciously timed in that it is believed that its intention is to draw negative media attention upon the school district and its superintendent immediately before the May 15 board election and budget vote,” Frank W. Miller, the district’s attorney said in a statement released by district officials on Friday.

But Ms. Wolpin said Monday that wasn’t the case at all. It was simply following the timeline required by SED, she said.

“It wasn’t timed. There was no strategic timing on that. I had 30 days from the last board meeting on April 16 to base the petition on him saying people couldn’t go to a Finance Committee meeting. It’s just to call the commissioner’s attention to something,” she said.

The race for the two school board seats on this year’s ballot is viewed by some followers of the school district as a referendum on support for School Superintendent Roger B. Clough II, whose leadership style has been an issue in this year’s school board race.

District officials said they received notice on Friday that Ms. Wolpin had filed an 95-page appeal with the New York State Education Department alleging that the district and Superintendent Roger B. Clough II had violated the state’s open meetings law, inappropriately used district funds to pay Mr. Clough’s personal legal expenses and mismanaged the district.

They said the document is a compilation of items such as newspaper clippings, photocopied sections from New York state school law and its interpretation, district correspondence and a copy of the Massena Federation of Teachers’ recent survey results.

It wasn’t all Robin Wolpin’s thoughts,” Ms. Wolpin said. “It was a collection of newspaper articles, bills from (Mr. Clough’s personal attorney D. Jeffrey Gosch) and Gosch’s letter in the paper. It wasn’t as though I wrote some big terrible story about Roger Clough. I just put everything together that had been occurring.”

Ms. Wolpin has been critical of the district’s policy in not allowing community members to attend its Finance Committee meetings as they worked on the budget that will be presented to voters today.

During April’s board of education meeting, she suggested that community members should have been allowed to attend district Finance Committee meetings based on a decision rendered by an official with the New York State Committee on Open Government.

Ms. Wolpin told board members that, based on her communications with Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government, the district’s Finance Committee meetings should have been open to the public.

Massena Central School officials, in an email to Ms. Wolpin, had noted that under education law, the meetings were not open to public attendance.

“All public schools abide by New York State Education Law, as you noted in your reference to the State Law Book. The Committee on Open Government is governed by the New York State Department of State. Until such time as the Commissioner of Education rules in favor of this advisory opinion, and nullifies the exemption from the Open Meetings Law, we will continue to conduct advisory committee meetings in the appropriate legal manner prescribed by the Education Department,” Superintendent Roger B. Clough II said.

“The Finance Committee meeting you referenced had confidential, personnel information within its agenda,” he wrote. “As you know, we cannot allow the public to participate in a meeting of this type.”

Ms. Wolpin’s appeal to SED also addresses work done by Mr. Gosch that had been paid for by district funds.

Mr. Gosch submitted on Dec. 6, 2011 a statement for professional services rendered and disbursements paid through Dec. 5, 2011. The amount was for $27,091.40.

The payment, which was questioned by Massena resident and former board of education member Toni Fiacco-Price during this month’s budget hearing, was approved by Mr. Clough, board President Leonard A. Matthews, board Vice President Gregory C. Fregoe and Treasurer Penny L. DeLosh.

However, Mr. Clough said, the payments were authorized under the terms of his contract. He said Mr. Gosch had been involved in defending the district last year against allegations of harassment and retaliation levied by Assistant Superintendent Cynthia M. Yager, which he said were later found to be unsubstantiated by Michaela Perrotto of Canandaigua, a full-time attorney for the Cayuga-Onondaga Board of Cooperative Educational Services in Auburn.

Mr. Gosch said he had been paid by the district in representing Mr. Clough “in a school district matter in which the school district’s attorney could not represent him as it would have been an ethical conflict for him to do so.”

Mr. Miller said in Friday’s release that they had been served with the Notice of Petition by Ms. Wolpin, but said the petition “makes various grossly inaccurate and insubstantial allegations against the Superintendent and the District. The claims asserted are without merit and we believe they will be dismissed and the District the Superintendent will be vindicated.”

State Education Department officials said Monday that Education Law allows individuals who consider themselves aggrieved by an action taken at a school district meeting or by school authorities to appeal to commissioner of education for a review of the action. Education law also allows the commissioner of education to remove a trustee, member of a board of education and certain other school officers for wilful misconduct or neglect of duty.

Appeals must be initiated within 30 days of a decision or action complained about, according to Education Law. An application for removal must also be initiated within 30 days of the decision or action complained of, and must contain evidence of wilful, intentional wrongdoing.

“It gives the commissioner the power to step in,” Ms. Wolpin said.

The burden of proof in an appeal to the commissioner rests with the person bringing the petition, who SED officials said must have a “clear legal right to the relief requested and the burden of establishing all the facts upon which he or she seeks relief.”

The person who is served with the petition has 20 days to respond.

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