With the not-unexpected departure of the superintendent from the East Hampton School District at the end of the month, school board members have found themselves with a difficult job. Ray Gualtieri had a stormy tenure, mostly of his own creation, but finding a replacement will not be easy, despite the position’s hefty salary.
During his eight-year tenure, Mr. Gualtieri reigned as the district’s top policy-maker rather than the elected board of education. This must change. His resignation gives the board an opportunity to restore public confidence by insisting that the district’s leaders restore a habit of openness. Far too many decisions were made behind closed doors without the opportunity for board members, much less taxpayers, to become involved.
One of Mr. Gualtieri’s low points was the still-unexplained decision to hire a white-shoe Park Avenue law firm to handle a contract dispute, leading to legal fees in excess of $2 million. A request from this newspaper to examine detailed billing records from Mr. Gualtieri’s chosen firm was denied, even though the New York Committee on Open Government has repeatedly issued advisory opinions that such documents must be available for public inspection. But this was the way the superintendent ran things — his way, welcoming very little outside scrutiny or advice.
Problematic, too, was the formula chosen to arrive at tuition rates for students from other school districts, which led to usurious rates. While this might have been good for the taxpayers in the East Hampton district, it created rancor within what had long been a united community. A recent deal to pay back some of the money has helped heal the wounds, but there is more to do.
In considering new candidates for the post, ideally, the board should look among the district’s existing administrators. Though this is not essential, it might help avoid some of the conflicts that plagued Mr. Gualtieri. Foremost among the qualities the board should look for in the candidates is a talent for diplomacy to help forge stronger ties among the sending districts and East Hampton. Consolidation of the districts, or the creation of a separate high school district, are ideas whose time may have come. A more cooperative approach among the districts would benefit taxpayers and students at all levels.
For the East Hampton board and its new superintendent, the biggest issue, however, may turn out to be a property-tax cap that may well be handed down from Albany later this year. The proposal, backed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, would hold increases to 2 percent annually, with exceptions for the cost of pensions and other contract obligations. This is far less than the historic rate of inflation, and it could prove crushing for the state’s schools.
East Hampton’s next school superintendent will have a very full to-do list. For the board of education, finding the right person for the job has never been more important.