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Briarcliff School Split Costly to Both Sides

Suddenly, in a 'no-fault divorce,' superintendent's out of a job—and the public's in the dark.

Briarcliff Manor’s backroom breakup with its relatively new school superintendent stands to damage both parties financially.

Superintendent Neal S. Miller is not only abruptly out of a job, but he could also be out of pocket more than a half-million dollars in uncollected salary and benefits. And the district that sent him packing is itself writing off a six-figure severance of $160,000 in salary and other payouts as well as an undisclosed sum in fringes.

Meanwhile, taxpayers have been kept in the dark. With secrecy reminiscent of the firing of Briarcliff’s teachers aides a year ago, Miller’s ouster was neither disclosed nor discussed publicly before the school board carried it out at its January 15 meeting.

Since that meeting, school officials, elected or appointed, uniformly deflect all questions on the matter, referring them to a hired public relations firm on eastern Long Island.

Even obtaining a copy of the district’s financial settlement with Miller required a Freedom of Information request. Miller and, with a raise, will finish this July at a salary of $240,875 annually.

In theory, even without a further raise, Miller stood to make $722,625 in salary alone in the remaining three years of his five-year employment contract.

Instead, he’s likely out most of it, or $562,625. In what school officials style as something of a no-fault divorce, the board offered, and Miller accepted, just an extension of his current salary to year’s end, roughly $120,000, along with a $20,000 contribution to his annuity account and another $20,000 in cash.

Although the January 7 accord spells out a date on which Miller’s fringe benefits must end, it does not appear to do so for his salary. In response to a question of possible ambiguity in the contract, Deirdre Gilligan, director of media relations at Syntax, the Bohemia, L.I., PR firm retained by the district, insisted Miller “will receive no more salary after Dec. 31.“

Harvard-educated, Miller came to Briarcliff after two years in a markedly different school environment outside Buffalo. As superintendent of the Medina Central School District, which has an average household income one-fifth the size of Briarcliff’s, Miller endured tight budgets, staff cuts and other economies before being tapped for the Briarcliff job.

When the school board meets Monday evening—the first opportunity for public discussion of Miller’s ouster—it will come almost a year after one of the superintendent’s more highly charged moves sparked a public uproar.

Last February, parents turned out in numbers to protest the firing of 27 longtime teacher aides and replacing them with lower-paid, but teacher-certified, assistants. Among other things, critics cited lack of transparency in the decision-making that went into it. Championed by Miller as saving money while raising qualifications for classroom help, the controversial initiative went on to win school board approval.

In March, parents made it clear they wanted the voices of the principals from Briarcliff’s elementary, middle and high schools to be heard and heeded in the district’s budget-making process. Dina Brantman, who would be elected to the school board less than two months later, urged an expanded role for the building principals in spending decisions.

“How else can you gather information for a budget other than talking with the people who live with—and manage—that budget every day?” she asked.

But perhaps recalling his fiscal struggles in Medina, Miller, while acknowledging the value of the principals’ input, said he would not likely seek it on budget matters.

“I do want principals to present,” he said at that time. “I’m just not sure it’s going to be within the budget [process].”

At that time, Sal Maglietta and Jennifer Rosen were trustees on the five-member school board—and the only ones to oppose the teacher aides’ firings. Today, lone holdovers from last year’s board, they are president and vice president, respectively, of a brand-new board. And in May, voters elected Brantman and Michael Haberman, both of whom have expressed reservations about the aide firings.

But Brantman insisted it would be wrong to draw a connection between Miller’s sudden departure and his 2012 controversies.

“In Briarcliff, the principals have always been a big part of the budget,” she said. “Our complaint last year was that we were not hearing directly from the principals [on] what they wanted their budgets to look like.”

While refusing direct comment on Miller’s leaving, she said, “This decision is not a reflection on what happened last year at all.”

Like every school official reached for comment, Brantman referred further questions to the hired PR firm.

At the sparsely attended Jan. 15 meeting, board President Maglietta enlivened the agenda’s routine business with a series of “oral resolutions,” reflecting actions completed at least a week earlier. The first added resolution declared that Miller was through as superintendent, effective June 30. The next hired James Kaishian, the high school principal, as Miller’s $240,000-a-year successor. Debora French, the school’s assistant principal, will succeed Kaishian.

McKey Rivers January 28, 2013 at 05:01 AM
When your friends on the BOE had the opportunity to fill the vacant seat on the Board, you were passed by. Truth be told, almost everyone thinks that you are too whacky to serve on the BOE.
Randall Petronus January 28, 2013 at 12:50 PM
Yes, this is a democracy - including the 1st Amendment. But why do the wingnuts always resort to name-calling when outed on their past histories?
Mike Valenti January 28, 2013 at 12:54 PM
The vacant seat on the BOE was filled by one of the applicants. I chose not to do so. More importantly, you and your nasty, angry clan have NO representation on the school board. That, the comminuity has spoken loud and clear on. The bottom line is that after you and your nasty clan sponsored the likes of Janet Marinacchio, Guy Rotundo, Eric Bashford and finally Rosella Ranno it is now crystal clear that you are out of sync with this community and have absolutely no likelihood of sponsoring a successful BOE candidate any time in the foreseeable future. It clearly brings out your true colors for all to see. I have an idea...why don't YOU run for the BOE this spring? To do so you'd need to reveal your identity - LOL!
W Obermeyer January 28, 2013 at 03:24 PM
What a pity the us versus them mentality is so evident. Perhaps that explains the tranparency deficit and the good versus evil analogies above. And why does the BoE need a Long Island PR company (at what cost) if they have such vocal cheerleaders ...
Mike Valenti January 28, 2013 at 03:57 PM
Outside of Briarcliff (you know, in America) there are differing political views and opinions and parties. It is the American way. It creates lively debate. It is a cornerstone in a thing we cherish and call Democracy. Neal Miller was a bad hire. When a company's Board corrects a bad hire situation at the CEO level it is done tactfully and respectfully - just like it was done here. Transparency is simply not an option in such sensitive human resource issues. In this instance Democracy triumphed over Politics. And a certain group of whiners is upset because what they worked several years to do (remove a well-respected, well-liked, popular, peoples-choice superintendent and replace her with an incompetent puppet) has been undone. This group of whiners had a vision of controlling Miller like a marionette as they tore the Briarcliff school district back down to the mediocrity it once was prior to Fran Wills. They were out of touch with the will of the community then and they are even more so out of touch today. The district brought in a PR Firm to assist in repairing the extensive damage done to our reputation under the previous BOE. It is a shame that the taxpayers need to foot that bill and I would concede that the individual hired doesn't appear to add much value.
Gargamel January 28, 2013 at 05:32 PM
Correct, but only a 2 time loser?
Gargamel January 28, 2013 at 05:33 PM
is there a mental means test for running for the school board?
Gargamel January 28, 2013 at 05:35 PM
sounds like the PR firm is repairing the current board's damage and planning for future disasters. But didn't some of the current board vote for Miller?
John Rapoport January 28, 2013 at 05:41 PM
(For Mike Valenti re: your 9:05 pm post). I have read several of your posts. Most are filled with invective. Your 9:05 pm post from last night was more of the same but, for once, contained facts provably wrong rather than your usual subjective character assassination. I am interested to know whether you are a bald faced liar or simply don't care to let the truth get in the way of a good attack line.Contrary to what you stated Rosella Ranno received her permanent NYS teacher's certification in February of 1975 (file #432956). Do you have the integrity or the decency to apologize? John Rapoport
W Obermeyer January 28, 2013 at 06:02 PM
Indeed they were present and voting. The similarity between a real life board and CEO, and any BoE and Superintendent, most likely relates to petty internal politics, scheming and back door deals - certainly not by the people for the people stuff. For one person to continue claiming representation of the community at large is plain disrespectful, and to call people puppets, incompetents and frauds just rude and indicative of the lack of civility which so sadly tarnishes the village and certain cliques.
McKey Rivers January 28, 2013 at 06:03 PM
Here is what current BOE president Sal Maglietta said at the time he voted for the appointment of Neil Miller as superintendent: "[Miller] is going to be a terrific superintendent based on what I see and what I can feel as an individual," said Maglietta. "I think he will be very important for us in uniting our community, in bringing us together, despite our differences." [The Patch, May 3, 2011] Disclosure of the contract with the eastern Suffolk PR firm will show that it was hired in direct connection with the scheme to fire Miller and for the obvious purpose of providing cover for the current members of the BOE. Has anyone heard of this PR firm prior to the removal of Mr. Miller? How were they selected? When was the firm retained? How much are they being paid? Was there any competitive bidding for this contract? Has the BOE terminated the existing contract for PR work with BOCES or does the Briarcliff School District now have two PR contracts?
Sarah Studley (Editor) January 28, 2013 at 06:51 PM
A comment in violation of the Patch Terms of Use has been deleted. Please review the terms before commenting here: http://pleasantville.patch.com/terms
Truthinjournalism101 January 28, 2013 at 08:07 PM
Everyone should take the Patch and its commentators with a grain of salt. Sarah Studley, the person in charge of moderating these comments and frequent contributor, is a paid employee of the Briarcliff School district. Her salary of $4,535 was approved 4-0 on 7/31/2012 by Rosen, Branton, Habermann and Maglietta. Check later to see if this comment was deleted.
Lanning Taliaferro (Editor) January 28, 2013 at 08:40 PM
Hi Truth -- Local Editor Sarah Studley's coaching job is included in her Patch biography, which you may see here: http://pleasantville.patch.com/users/sarah-studley-2
Mike Valenti January 28, 2013 at 08:51 PM
Sarah is actually the Editor of the Pleasantvill-Briarcliff Patch. It is most certainly a conflict that she draws a paycheck from the very same municipality she is tasked with covering. Patch should repurpose her to a different community. Lanning, I brought this to you as an issue in an email dated 1/17/13 that was sent to you as well as William Demarest. Apparently I am not the only community member/reader who sees this as a conflict.
Gargamel January 28, 2013 at 09:07 PM
how much is the PR firm cost and when were they hired? What is their scope of work?
Randall Petronus January 28, 2013 at 10:17 PM
Wow - let the games begin!...Apparently there is a plethora of pent up suspicion, resentment and downright distrust of the current board. A public demonstration of transparency inre the Miller-Kashian decision and how the BOE intends to handle escalating school taxes, the cost of damages related to the polluted fields lawsuits, and other important (but highly secretive) issues would go a long way to set their constituents' minds at ease. How about a town meeting or similar venue with Q&A from the floor and a non-partisan moderator (er, mediator)? This would go a long way to re-building public trust for the current BOE.
McKey Rivers January 28, 2013 at 11:30 PM
Why does the removal of an apparently libelous comment present a conflict of interest because the Editor is a part time volleyball coach, has disclosed same, and the person who is the subject of the libel has nothing to do with the part time coach? Shouldn't the person who apparently lied be apologizing before starting another round of invective?
Gargamel January 29, 2013 at 01:43 AM
I am confused. But didn't Valenti actively seek the appointment to the vacant seat on the BOE? I thought I saw his picture in an article. Obviously he wasn't picked by the very people on the board now - for some reason that is missing?
Gargamel January 29, 2013 at 04:21 PM
It seems the following should be an important issue. It was asked before but no one seems to know. "How much is the PR firm costing and when were they hired? What is their scope of work?" there has to be a record somehwere on this.
Mike Valenti January 29, 2013 at 05:18 PM
I did not seek the appointment to the vacant seat when your candidate, Rosella Ranno, quit her post prematurely. Lot's of revisionist history coming out of your little group here. You should take your arguments to the people in the spring school board elections. Two seats will be up for grabs. My guess is that this exercise will reinforce that the majority of the community will send you a message that they never want to see any of your clan with school board representation ever again. The community will never forget the damage done to our district by the candidates you sponsored: Janet Marinaccio, Guy Rotundo, Eric Bashford and Rosella Ranno.
Lisa Jenner February 02, 2013 at 04:39 PM
I'm sorry to say, Mike Valenti, you are wrong about much of what you say. I know. I didn't win during my run for the school board, but that doesn't mean what I say is not correct. The problem is that many people don't understand the inner working of a school district. To compare it to a corporation with a CEO is incorrect reasoning - always. For the community to pick by democracy the superintendent is also a mistake. The community elects the school board and the school board should make these decisions. Sadly, in Briarcliff, it IS all about politics. McKey Rivers is absolutely correct. The BOE did not want a superintendent they could not control. Randall Petronus is also correct on many points. Fran Wills was an outstanding educator, but the way the school budget was handled under her leadership was not to the benefit of the tax payer nor the children of the district. It costs a great deal of money to be all things to all people, and that was the legacy of Dr. Wills. And with all due respect to James Kaishan, he does not have central district experience. A district that strives for excellence deserves that. This is not the excellent school district it should be. For the amount of money spent per child, our ratings are mediocre. I know some people say that ratings don't matter, but they are kidding themselves. Two very important parties care about ratings: people buying property in the community and colleges.
W Obermeyer February 02, 2013 at 08:42 PM
Fully agree. Well considered and thoughtful comments.
Mike Valenti February 03, 2013 at 06:05 PM
As I stated a few comments earlier, OUTSIDE of Briarcliff our Country operates under a model called Democracy. Democracy allows for different viewpoints, which generally creates differing political party affiliations. Democracy creates lively debate and generally, if operating properly and fairly, carries out the will of the majority. With that said, it is clear that here in Briarcliff (where we shun Democracy for our secretive, insider controlled, antiquated, flawed, one party Peoples Caucus system for our Village Governance), the fact that more than one group, of more than one mind, exists here. This troubles the commenters to this article as the candidates they have sponsored over the past several years have turned out to be very unpopular with the majority of the community. Candidates like Janet Marinaccio, Guy Rotundo, Eric Bashford and Rosella Ranno as well as unsuccessful candidates like Lisa Jenner. It troubles them because at this time - and through the will of the majority here in Briarcliff and under a system of Democratic School Board elections - they have no current representatives on the School Board. Furthermore, while they are certainly entitled to their opinions, their opinions at this time appear to be very unpopular with the majority of the community. You can literally feel their anger and frustration in their comments here as they know they have no chance of sponsoring a successful school board candidate any time soon. (Continued)...
Mike Valenti February 03, 2013 at 06:06 PM
Furthermore, their work of the recent past has been undone with the current School Board dismissing a Superintendent they ushered in (whom the current BOE nor the community ever developed any confidence in) and replaced him with an individual whom the BOE and the community have tremendous confidence in. Again I suggest that perhaps it is more appropriate to congratulate Jim on his new position and to offer our support - rather than trump up a bunch of nonsense about transparency, secrecy and political motivations. The healing process has come a long way in less than a year. Let's encourage it, nurture it - not take every opportunity to pick the wound open again.
W Obermeyer February 04, 2013 at 12:32 PM
Thar (s)he blows -again. Same old Cool Aid. The issue here is not the incoming superintendent, neither the outgoing, as no doubt they are both well qualified individuals with the best intentions for our children in mind. It is precisely that in a democratic society one would expect the process to be open and not conducted in the dark, and the community - you know, all the taxpayers - would be treated with integrity and respect. I think most of us would prefer to be informed about the reasons for decisions that affect our children rather than have to rely on outside PR companies or vindictive blog comments.
Lisa Jenner February 04, 2013 at 05:37 PM
Let's be clear, Mike. I was not a partisian candidate. I was not affiliated with what you call the "likes of Janet Marinaccio" nor the "likes of you or Sal Maglietta". I was and am an independent thinker. As a 36 year veteran of the New York public schools, I thought I had a unique perspective to the school board. The community did not agree. So be it. I don't hold myself out as the voice of anyone but myself, unlike you, who claim to be speaking on behalf of the majority of the community. There is no doubt that the BOE pulled this administrative move in secrecy. Whether or not it was a good move or not remains to be seen. There is no need for you to be so venomous in your comments. It is clear that a sizable portion of the community did support the "likes of Janet Marinaccio" or they never would have been on the Board. I applaud their work and the work of all those who have given of their time to serve the community. I only hope they all act in the best interest of ALL members of the community, especially the children.
Sal Maglietta February 05, 2013 at 11:51 AM
As BOE president, I want to thank all of the people (even if I do not recognize every name) who take the interest and time to share their views and issues. I welcome you to call me or any BOE trustee as we look forward to your comments and questions. Sal Maglietta 914-450-8867 smaglietta@briarcliffschools.org
W Obermeyer February 05, 2013 at 06:05 PM
I am in the school directory. Thank you for taking an interest in the views of community members. I have heard that BOE members are referring questions to the firm retained by the board, but appreciate the offer of personal contact and will be in touch.
The Real Herman Sexton May 20, 2013 at 10:46 AM
Valenti, you keep talking about outside Briarcliff, why don't you go! You're a big mouth with no idea what is right

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