OCEAN CITY – After a public resignation letter sent by an Ocean City Board of Education member took aim at other members of the school board, calling them deeply dysfunctional and apathetic toward students and families, board members swung back.
Suzanne Morgan, a board member who lost her reelection bid in November, did not attend a scheduled December meeting, which would have been her last, instead emailing a resignation letter to the board secretary, the Herald and other media outlets.
“Since the beginning of this school year, I learned the ugly truth of the Ocean City School Board,” Morgan wrote in the Nov. 28 letter. “I am completely disillusioned after having ‘seen behind the curtain,’ and the disservice to the school community is a complete disgrace.”
Three days later, Dec. 1, members of the board issued their own letter in response, distributed to the media through a local consulting company. In it, they pushed back at Morgan’s assertions and pointed out her poor attendance at board meetings.
“Ms. Morgan also astoundingly claims that other members of the Board are ‘totally disengaged’ despite the fact that she did not attend our meetings held on Aug. 4, Aug. 11, and Nov. 17, and refused to attend the Executive Session held during the Board meeting on Sept. 22,” the response letter read.
The nine board members who signed the letter said Morgan did not support her accusations with examples or facts.
“How does Ms. Morgan know whether or not board members are reviewing documents and coming to meetings prepared when she has not attended most of the meetings this school year? Which emails have been completely ignored? Which pressing educational issues are not being discussed? Which board member(s) is she accusing of having political agendas and what facts is she basing that accusation on? What media outlet has been told not to publish anything about the complaints? Whose complaints? Hers?” asked the response letter.
Morgan did not return multiple voicemails left by the Herald on her cell phone.
The Sept. 22 executive session is also the subject of pending ethics charges against Joe Clark, the president of the board. The charges filed by Morgan and two other board members, Jacqueline McAlister and Cecelia Gallelli-Keyes, which were obtained through a public records request by the Herald, allege Clark allowed interim Superintendent Thomas Baruffi to use the session to air grievances against the three female board members.
Clark declined to be interviewed by the Herald through a spokesperson with the consulting firm that distributed the response letter.
The charges allege Baruffi also threatened ethics charges against the three members and questioned their earlier votes. The complaints also say Baruffi accused the women of giving secret information to the former superintendent, Kathleen Taylor.
Baruffi said in the executive session that he felt attacked when board members asked questions of him publicly, but that an earlier order issued by Clark did not allow board members to communicate directly with Baruffi outside board meetings, according to the complaint.
The three women say Baruffi made one of the three women cry “as he attacked her by threatening ethics charges against her.”
Gallelli-Keyes and McAlister’s names did not appear on the board’s response letter to Morgan.
Baruffi declined to be interviewed by the Herald via phone but agreed to answer written questions submitted to him. He did not answer eight questions pertaining to the specifics of the ethics charges pending against Clark, writing: “I’m not at liberty or able to discuss specific matters that were discussed in executive session due to certain confidentiality rights and obligations.”
Ethics charges which were also filed against Baruffi were later withdrawn and other charges against Clark were dismissed. The response letter says the remaining ethics charge against Clark “will likely be dismissed, as well, but at an unnecessary expense to the district.”
In his written response emailed to the Herald Dec. 8, Baruffi stated, “I do not know why those charges were withdrawn by the complainants, I only know for certain that they were. While I can’t comment or speculate on someone else’s motivation, I can say that my focus is solely on the education of the children in this district.”
Baruffi, the former superintendent in Linwood and Mainland school districts, took an early retirement in 2014, after a new state cap on superintendent salaries would have forced him to take a pay cut of close to $30,000 per year. Since then, he has served numerous districts in an interim role, including Margate, Somers Point and now Ocean City.
Baruffi entered a district in turmoil, after a petition circulated toward the end of last school year called for law enforcement to investigate claims of “unsafe and unjust practices” by the high school. The petition included more than 60 anecdotes of alleged bullying, substance abuse, abuse of powers, mental health issues, suicides and harmful ideas or traditions.
Capt. Mike Emmer of the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office told the Herald in April that his office was aware of the petition and reviewing it. He did not respond to a request for an update on the investigation in December.
Taylor’s retirement, in June, was mired in controversy with picketers outside her retirement dinner saying she was not someone to be celebrated.
Baruffi said he feels like the district is currently in a good position but had a solid foundation before he arrived.
“I think we’re moving in a great direction. Every district is addressing the issue of school culture and, with the pandemic, the need to do so is greater than ever,” Baruffi wrote. “While I’m not in a position to comment on matters of the past, the feedback we’re receiving regarding the current culture has been very positive.”
Baruffi said he was surprised to receive the letter from Morgan, who came in seventh of a field of 11 vying for three seats on the school board, since she only had one final meeting.
“I believe this district is in a very good place, and that didn’t happen just in the four months that I’ve been here. But, at this point, our focus needs to be on the things that matter, not unsubstantiated accusations or other unnecessary distractions,” Baruffi stated.
He said the district has not received a bill for legal or public relations services related to the ethics charges and Morgan’s letter, but that there would be a cost to the district.
“Ocean City has great schools and I believe they’ve been great for a long time. Everyone who has worked here in the past or has served this district in some capacity deserves credit for that. But no district is perfect. When I come into a district, my goal is to build on the good things and address the areas of need, and that’s what we’re doing,” Baruffi added.
To contact Shay Roddy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.