The audience members who attended Wednesday evening’s meeting of the Oppenheim-Ephratah-St. Johnsville Board of Education left with more questions than they arrived with, as the board voted 4 - 3 to place Superintendent Laura Lawrence on paid administrative leave to close the meeting.
Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES District Superintendent Dr. Patrick Michel will serve as acting superintendent of the merged school district that began operations on July 1 until the board of education appoints someone else to the position.
In his statutory role as a representative of the New York State Department of Education, Michel is required to assume the responsibility of superintendent of schools in any H-F-M BOCES component district when the position becomes vacant.
Board of education members Cindy Breh, Neil Clark, William Lints and Susanne Sammons voted in favor of placing Lawrence on paid administrative leave. Board members Keith Handy, Lee Quackenbush and Renee Swartz voted against the action.
The vote came after a nearly 90-minute executive session and a 4 - 3 vote to amend the meeting’s agenda. Breh, Clark, Lints and Sammons voted to amend the agenda, while Handy, Quackenbush and Swartz voted against the motion.
As it is a personnel matter and due to possible pending litigation, Michel said the board members’ reasons for placing Lawrence on leave would not be discussed publicly.
Michel did say, however, the state Department of Education’s investigation into past grading and promotion practices at the former Oppenheim-Ephratah Central School District is unrelated to Lawrence.
When questioned by audience member Craig Eggleston about the investigation, Michel said, “It is a week old and a lot of information has been gathered.”
Michel declined to comment further on the investigation, except to say it was not tied to the new Oppenheim-Ephratah-St. Johnsville school district and the board members had been instructed by the state Department of Education not to comment on it publicly.
“We are prohibited by the state from discussing the investigation at this time,” Michel said. “Once the investigation is complete, the details will be released as appropriate.”
Prior to the board’s vote to place Lawrence on leave, audience member John Burkhart questioned why she was not in attendance for Wednesday evening’s meeting.
Michel said he had spoken to her before the meeting and they agreed she would not attend. “I am not able to comment any further,” he said.
“I just want to know how we got to this place,” said Burkhart.
Also prior to the vote, audience member Linda Hart called on the board of education to “do a better job treating one another with respect.”
“When the board goes into executive session the yelling between board members can be heard in the hallways as you pass by,” she said, adding she felt “heart sorry” for Lawrence every time she saw the expression on her face after the board exited executive session. “One of the goals the board said it wanted to stress this year was relationships, well the board is not doing a good job modeling this for us and that is disturbing to me.”
Page 2 of 2 - The board of education unanimously selected Lawrence as the district’s first superintendent on May 7, with her official appointment after contract negotiations.
Lawrence served as St. Johnsville superintendent of schools since the beginning of the 2012 - 2013 school year and served as the district’s deputy superintendent prior to that. Before becoming superintendent, she was the principal of St. Johnsville’s D.H. Robbins Elementary School for six years. During her time as principal, she also served as the former district’s director of special education, Committee on Special Education chairperson and as director of St. Johnsville’s Head Start program.
A Little Falls native, Lawrence began her education career teaching fifth grade for a year at Hannibal Elementary School in Oswego County. From 1990 to 2006, she taught kindergarten through fifth grade at Benton Hall Academy in Little Falls.
At the time of her appointment as Oppenheim-Ephratah-St. Johnsville superintendent, Michel said “the board has made an excellent decision selecting a leader to guide the new district.” He added he was confident Lawrence’s leadership would “help create a new school district that will provide a 21st century education for students that far exceeds what the two former districts could have ever provided as separate entities.”
After her selection in May, Lawrence said she was “thrilled” the board selected her for the position and that she “appreciated their unanimous support.” “I look forward to working with the board and the staff as we establish the new district and provide opportunities for all students to not just learn, but to excel to higher expectations.”
At the start of school in September, Lawrence said the district, in the next three to five years, would “begin to see remarkable changes” and would “become a model for schools for our area,” adding her top priority for the district’s first year was to “establish strong relationships between teachers and students and between the school and the community.”