Charles R. Soriano’s three-month absence from his post as principal of the East Hampton Middle School reached a crescendo in the last week, with anticipation that he would return to work on Tuesday, following the district’s observance of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday on Monday, and, at the same time, with kind words for Thomas Lamorgese, the interim principal.
Since Dr. Soriano began an extended medical leave early last fall, purportedly for Lyme disease, Dr. Lamorgese, who is well known in the district, has filled the position. Before retiring in 2011 at the age of 58, he had overseen the middle school and before that was principal of the John M. Marshall Elementary School.
Since an East Hampton School Board meeting on Jan. 8, when the board unanimously voted to approve an extension of Dr. Soriano’s medical leave through Jan. 18, rumors concerning his whereabouts have picked up steam.
“He’s coming back on Tuesday. Friday will be my last day,” Dr. Lamorgese said yesterday morning. “This is his building, and I was only here temporarily.” During his absence, Dr. Lamorgese confirmed that the two have exchanged e-mails. “We’re happy that he’s returning, and we’re looking forward to his return,” said Richard Burns, the district superintendent.
While Dr. Soriano declined to discuss his leave, he responded by e-mail to The East Hampton Star earlier in the week. Confirming his return on Jan. 22 “pending my doctor’s approval, which I think he will provide,” Dr. Soriano said, “I look very forward to getting back to work.”
Given the duration of his absence and what some described as a mystery surrounding it, a handful of teachers and parents have speculated that Dr. Soriano may be in the process of filing a lawsuit against the district, which they surmise might be related to a decrease in his salary this year. No one at the district office would confirm or deny such speculation.
Prior to being appointed principal last summer, Dr. Soriano had been the district’s assistant superintendent for nine years under Raymond Gualtieri, the previous superintendent. According to records compiled by the Empire Center for New York State Policy, Dr. Soriano received a salary of $205,369 from July 1, 2011, until June 30, 2012. From 2008, his salary had gone up by nearly $20,000. But when Dr. Soriano went from being assistant superintendent to middle school principal, his compensation decreased to $180,000.
By way of comparison, according to the same database, Dr. Lamorgese was paid $166,985 in 2011. Superintendent Burns’s salary last year was $172,827.
Asked about Dr. Soriano’s contract, Robert Fullem, deputy general counsel at the School Administrators Association of New York State, said, “By taking a new position, the former assistant superintendent is agreeing to forego the rights he had under the prior contract. There’s nothing forbidding them from entering into a contract at lesser pay.”
Dr. Soriano earned a doctorate in organizational leadership and education from the University of Pennsylvania. He has an M.A. from Middlebury College, a bachelor’s degree from the College of the Holy Cross, and a second M.A. in educational leadership from Rutgers University.
Keith Malsky, the assistant principal of John Marshall who is president of the district administrators union, declined to comment, refusing to say whether a lawsuit had been filed against the district on Dr. Soriano’s behalf.
Given Dr. Soriano’s prolonged absence, some expressed concern about the possible need for him to rely on the district’s sick leave bank. However, George Aman, the East Hampton School Board president, dismissed that, saying, “he had plenty of sick days — and could even be covered until the end of the school year if need be.”
In Dr. Soriano’s absence, several people described his leadership style as cold and aloof, while, anticipating his return, numerous parents have expressed regret at the possibility of seeing Dr. Lamorgese go. Claude Beudert, a special education teacher at the middle school who is vice president of the teachers union, was cautiously optimistic about Dr. Soriano’s return. “If he does come back, it would be a positive thing, because it would mean that the man’s healthy,” he said. “But I hope that he uses the resources in the district to help him do his job — namely the faculty, staff, and the community. It’s really tough to go it alone.”
“At this point, the parents don’t really know Dr. Soriano very well. We haven’t had the opportunity to work with him much,” Wendy Geehreng, president of the middle school PTA, said. She mentioned that many parents feel particularly comfortable with Dr. Lamorgese because he is a familiar face.
One of Dr. Lamorgese’s daily rituals has been to stand outside the school during drop off each morning. With a smile and a nod, he customarily greets every student by first name.
“His being there has meant a lot, I can’t even begin to tell you,” said Jody Kalafut, a former vice president of the school’s PTA. “They feel so comfortable walking into school. He knows them, he knows their names, their strengths and their weaknesses.”