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.