Clarkstown School Board Member Phil DeGaetano reacted strongly to the latest round of documents filed with the state education commissioner that seek his removal and that of current Board President Doug Katz as trustees. DeGaetano said references to a letter should be followed up with the actual document.
“The smoking gun is the letter,” said DeGaetano on Thursday. “They claim there was this letter. Is she going to show the letter?”
The letter he referred to was one described as having been sent in January 2011 to Attorney Michele Handzel-Miller, who was representing Superintendent Margaret Keller-Cogan at that time. The letter was described in the original petition filed by Board Members Joe Malgieri, Diane Hoeneveld and Robert Carlucci as “offering the terms of a contract buyout.” The petitioners claimed in their that DeGaetano, who was then board president, and Katz, who was the board vice-president, “acted without authorization from the board to offer the Superintendent a buyout of her contract.”
Malgieri and Hoeneveld stated they visited the office of the school district’s attorney Warren Berbit on Sept. 26 and Sept. 28 to read correspondence between attorneys for the district and the superintendent. At that time, they said they saw “verification of information regarding the offers made to the Superintendent’s attorney occurred in a letter...” The two board members stated they were not permitted to copy, take a photo or write notes about any materials they viewed.
“The essence of the claim has nothing to do with the letter,” he said. “The essence of the claim is they acted without the approval of the entire board.”
He said he has not asked the Keller-Cogan or her attorneys to provide the letter, which had to do with possible “discrete extraction” of the superintendent from the district. If the commissioner felt it was necessary, then he would make the request.
"If I needed to produce it, if the commissioner wanted to see it, I’m sure Meg and her attorneys would produce it,” said Malgieri.
DeGaetano disputed a claim in the petitioners’ answer that he wanted to meet privately with the superintendent to discuss a buy-out of her contract and that the request had been relayed by Berbit to the superintendent’s attorney.
“This conversation never happened between Warren Berbit and me,” he asserted. “I would never have a meeting between me and Dr. Keller-Cogan without the board.”
When asked why his and Katz’s responses to the petitions were not online on the district’s web site along with the three petitions, DeGaetano said he had no problem with them being posted. He said FOIL (Freedom of Information) requests can be submitted for them. Katz was on vacation and unavailable to comment.
“I’m not hiding anything, these are our answers,” DeGaetano said. “’I’m very confident that the commissioner will find in my favor.”
For the past four months the board members have been at odds over Keller-Cogan’s contract, which ends in June 2012. Now, another document has become the focus of the board’s attention. Earlier this week a document belonging to the district was distributed publicly through an of the school district. The board met Monday in special session and voted to hire the Nyack law firm of Feerick Lynch MacCartney to investigate.
DeGaetano supported the investigation.
“I will cooperate fully with that investigation,” he said. “I voted yes to the investigation. I don’t need a subpoena. All he needs to do is pick up the phone.”
DeGaetano said he wanted the results of the investigation made public.
“Unlike the reports from Greece of Dr. Keller-Cogan and her alleged actions at her former school district which the board of education refuses to release, it is my intention to vote that Mr. Feerick’s investigation report be made public,” he said. “Let the chips fall where they may. I think we should hold judgment until that investigation is complete.”