In May the Springs School Board announced its intention of bringing acting Superintendent Dominic Mucci back for another year – in the face of an article in The Independent that clearly indicated the school didn't follow state guidelines concerning his continued employment.
Earlier this month the State Education Department, recovering from a scandal involving the re-hiring of retired school officials on pensions for large cash stipends, refused to grant Mucci a waiver he needed to stay on the job. The district reportedly appealed the decision to no avail.
Another retired administrator, Jay Finello, was appointed to serve as interim superintendent.
A NYSED Waiver 512 was needed because Mucci, a retiree, is drawing a healthy pension in addition to his salary at Springs. Finello will earn less than the $33,000 annual salary that triggers the necessity for a waiver.
The law for allowing a retired administrator to double dip is very clear: a waiver can be granted only if "a temporary need exists and a thorough and good faith search for a non-retired individual to fill the position has not yet been successful. All certified non-retired candidates for the position must first be considered."
According to minutes from a Springs School Board meeting in February, although at least 14 applicants had emerged from a superintendent search, then School Board President Kathee Burke-Gonzalez commented, "the board is hopeful that Mr. Mucci would again submit his resume."
This is not permissible under the waiver procedure. The school board didn't have the authority to choose Mucci over the other candidates; his appointment was based on the district's pledge that no other qualified candidates could be found and that the district would conduct a search and find a replacement.
When the district tried to appoint Mucci for another year – reportedly at a salary of $105,000 – it applied for another waiver. The State Ed Teacher's Certification Unit, which is in charge of administering waiver requests, was already aware Springs wasn't making a determined effort to find a quality replacement. Dr. John B. King Jr., the Commissioner of Education, refused to sign the waiver.
Finello, a former superintendent at several districts – most recently as an interim in East Islip, will fill the same position in Springs. He will receive a housing allowance as well – The Independent has queried the State Ed Department for the guidelines under which additional funds can be expended for Finello without triggering the need for a waiver.
The Mucci dismissal is another in a series of tumultuous events at Springs. The State Education Department is investigating an allegation of test fixing at the school, and principal Eric Casale has come under fire after it was learned he was implicated in a cheating scandal at his former school in the Bronx. An assistant principal was forced to resign in May.
A State Education department spokeswoman acknowledged that complaints have been filed against Casale but declined to say if an active investigation is underway.
The Independent broke the story about the waiver scandal five years ago. Retired administrators under the auspices of BOCES initiated the program; it mushroomed into a buddy system that cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. Districts routinely hired retired administrators – BOCES charged a 10 percent finder's fee – without even attempting to fill vacant positions with qualified non-retired candidates.
School superintendents who hired their retired peers were in turn put in the pool when they retired; often jobs would be found for them in their home districts or near where they lived. Perhaps not coincidentally, Mucci has a house in Springs.
After Newsday did a series of articles, complaints mounted, and Andrew Cuomo, at the time the State Attorney General, launched a probe in 2008. Up until that point the waiver process was much like the LIRR disability board – every single request was green-lighted. State Commissioner of Education Richard Mills announced his retirement after the abuses became public.
The process for granting waivers has been tightened; though the review process is by no means stringent, it does red flag obvious abuses like the one the Springs School district attempted to perpetrate.