Written by Joe Rizza Friday, 04 September 2009 00:00
Students in the Mineola School District will be beginning their first day of school on Tuesday, Sept. 8. For students, it represents a new year. The same principle can apply to the Mineola Board of Education. For the board, it is an opportunity to focus all its energy on the education of the students instead of the divisiveness that seemed to plague the board last year.
At a time when a grade configuration study was being conducted to see if it was feasible for the board of education to close one or two of the schools in the district, the board was provided with a major distraction when, in February 2008, the former administration assistant for the superintendent of schools Ulana Illiano filed a lawsuit against the superintendent of schools Dr. Larry Licopoli and deputy superintendent Dr. Michael Nagler, alleging the two administrators made offensive remarks and created a hostile work atmosphere.
The board hired an attorney to conduct an investigation of the allegations. The attorney, Douglas Libby, issued a report to the board. The report was never made public. However, board of education member Laraine Salvatore found the report contained sufficient evident to petition the commissioner of the New York State Education Department to investigate the alleged actions of Dr. Licopoli, Dr. Nagler and then-board members Steve Siwinski, Mary Ellen Williams and John McGrath in 2008. Siwinski and Williams have since decided to retire from the board. McGrath was re-elected this past May. The commissioner of education dismissed Salvatore’s petition in May 2008.
Recently, the lawsuit by Illiano was withdrawn. “This matter is hereby withdrawn without prejudice and without costs, disbursements and attorneys feel to any party,” stated that court stipulation, dated July 9, 2009.
With the allegations against Dr. Licopoli and Dr. Nagler withdrawn, a major source of the divisiveness on the board has been eliminated. As of July 1, the district has a new superintendent as Dr. Nagler was promoted. Dr. Licopoli’s contract expired on June 30 and although he wanted to remain as superintendent, the board was split on a contract extension.
Dr. Licopoli still has a lawsuit pending with Salvatore, alleging that the board member made defamatory remarks during a performance review. The next appearance date in court for both parties is scheduled for September 14.
The board is currently comprised of president Will Hornberger, vice-president Terry Hale, new board member Christine Napolitano, who filled Siwinski’s seat, Salvatore and McGrath, who is the most senior member of the board.
The board now has an opportunity to concentrate on educational and fiscal issues with one less major distraction, which was the lawsuit against the superintendent and deputy superintendent.
McGrath, who served as the board president in 2008 when the lawsuit against Dr. Licopoli and Dr. Nagler was filed, believes the lawsuit served as a distraction as the board grappled with making decisions. “That preoccupied us for a good two years,” said McGrath, who firmly believed in the innocence of Dr. Licopoli and Dr. Nagler after the board investigated the allegations. “As the investigation moved forward, people were getting upset because they were being deposed. Obviously, you had a lot of public outcry not only by the fact that we were being sued, but also by the fact that we didn’t fire Dr. Licopoli, by the fact that we were giving Dr. Nagler tenure. When we decided to give Dr. Nagler the superintendent position, people were upset that we were doing that with these charges still pending.”
As it turned out, Dr. Nagler and Dr. Licopoli were cleared of wrongdoing by the withdrawal of the lawsuit by the plaintiff. “I’m just happy it’s over. I think everybody is happy it’s over,” said McGrath, who had proposed extending Dr. Licopoli’s contract, but when the motion failed to pass, voted to support Dr. Nagler as the superintendent.
The board has set goals for the 2009-2010 school year having to do with education, its facilities and financial goals, which are crucial considering the current economic climate. “The board, from my perspective, is in a much different place,” said Dr. Nagler, commenting on a positive board retreat that was held, during which the board set its goals. “The board is definitely focusing on issues. I think we’re trying to frame the issues that allow for differences [in opinion]. [For example], instead of talking about school closings, the board goal is going to talk about finances and then get a gauge of the community about the financial situation. Before you talk about what to do, we kind of had this realization that we need to make sure everybody’s on the same page.”
For Dr. Nagler, who has begun his first year as a school superintendent, there is an opportunity to put the lawsuit behind him. “It feels good and at the same time, it’s sad, in a way, that it was just allowed to happen,” he said about the court stipulation that the case against him and Dr. Licopoli was withdrawn by the plaintiff, but not before the two administrators were forced to defend themselves. “There’s a helpless feeling that goes with it. You’re really helpless. There’s nothing you can do. I had a great attorney who understood that this is my life.”
Dr. Licopoli left the school district on June 30 as the legal issue was about to be resolved. “In my heart, I know that the truth will prevail and while it can be frustrating to wait for that to happen, it will happen,” he said in an interview with the Mineola American prior to his retirement. “I think things will be made right and I think it’s important that things be made right so that they don’t repeat themselves.”
The next school board meeting is Thursday, Sept. 3 at 7 p.m. in the second floor faculty lounge of the Willis Avenue School.