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Thursday, May 30, 2024

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Upper School Officials Are Public Servants … They Should Behave Accordingly

By Herald Staff

ED. NOTE: The Upper Township Board of Education, at its Jan. 23 meeting, which was held after the below piece was written, offered the board’s first explanation of the agreement, which can be found here. What is still unclear is why so much of the agreement with former Superintendent Vincent Palmieri Jr. was redacted from a copy distributed to the Herald in response to an Open Public Records Act request or why the board didn’t try to explain things to the public sooner.    

Recently, the Upper Township School Board negotiated the exit of its superintendent of over 20 years in the middle of a school year and six months before his contract would have expired. To accomplish this goal, which they never felt any responsibility to explain, they agreed to use $300,000 of taxpayer money as part of a separation agreement. Then having done this, the board ensured that the separation agreement acted as a muzzle on all the parties. No party can divulge any of its details to those who are footing the bill.

In the wisdom of the board, the step was necessary, and in the hubris of the board, the public need not be told why. That is not how responsive and responsible elected officials should act.

In reply to an Open Public Records Act request for the settlement agreement, the school board and its attorney so heavily redacted the agreement that page after page that would have explained the action taken were completely blacked out. The arrogance so clearly on display is breathtaking.

This first came to public attention in November. With the election safely over, Superintendent Vincent Palmieri and Board President Michele Barbieri sent out a notice to parents that Palmieri would leave his position, as of Jan. 1. Suddenly and hastily, the school district was ridding itself of its superintendent of two decades. The notice to parents made no comment of what had brought about the change. The notice also made no comment about the sizable payoff the board was agreeing to give Palmieri to leave.

The agreement states that Palmieri “will formally choose to resign,” as of Dec. 31. The language is unambiguous. Palmieri was leaving, as of the end of 2022. The only question was how. He chose the option to resign. Then, the copy of the agreement makes clear one incentive to leave quietly is the $300,000 that he will be paid.

When a high-ranking official is removed from office suddenly and given what is the equivalent of two years’ pay to go, the public has a right to know why. Secret deals cannot be tolerated.

The damage done under these circumstances is significant. Instead of being told openly and honestly the reasons for such an extraordinary action, the public, including parents and students of the district, are left to contemplate which of many nefarious actions could have prompted the board’s decision. It does damage to Palmieri’s reputation and to perceptions of the board’s integrity.

A letter to parents directed questions to district Business Administrator Laurie Ryan. As one might expect, Ms. Ryan then refused to provide any information on Palmieri’s exit from the district. The absurdity of the Catch-22 in all of this is clear. Questions are directed to a person who cannot or will not answer them.

The redaction of the agreement is an abuse of the state’s open record act exceptions. Has the board crafted its actions in a way that makes them technically legal? Maybe. Does that absolve it of its good-faith obligations to the public? Absolutely not.

Barbieri presides over this mess and should carry a special accountability for it. If there is a legitimate reason that justifies the extraordinary actions by the board, the public has a right to know it. In the absence of public disclosure, the public also has the right to assume the actions of the board are not supportable.

Election to office is a privilege. It represents an opportunity to serve the public. Difficult decisions, some at the risk of alienating public opinion, are part of the job, but those decisions must be openly disclosed and accountability for them accepted.

  ——-

From the Bible: Follow only what is good. Remember that those who do good prove that they are God’s children. 3 John 1:11 

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