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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 2, 2006

Rush to judgment

One of our readers had a forthright reaction our front-page story last week — the state comptroller claims to have discovered corruption in the Voorheesville School District and he stated in a press conference that the former superintendent, Alan McCartney, had paid himself an extra $127,338 over his 16-year tenure.

"He ought to be lynched," she said as she read the story.

Our laws, of course, don’t allow for lynching. We have a justice system founded on the principle that the accused are innocent until proven guilty.

Alan McCartney has not yet even been charged with a crime. Neither has Anthony Marturano, the assistant superintendent for business who worked for 11 years under McCartney. The comptroller accuses him of collecting $89,069 inappropriately..

"I cannot say in strong enough terms, I did not do anything improper," Marturano told us last week. "I’m shocked and surprised by the whole thing...My good name is now mud."

He deserves to have his name mud, his reputation spoiled, if all the comptroller alleges is true. But what if it isn’t"

The current school board, led by its president, Joseph Pofit, was at last Tuesday’s press conference and was strident in its accusations. "The board is outraged that former officials would purposefully manipulate people and internal controls in order to enrich themselves," said Pofit.

No one on the school board, past or present, has taken any responsibility for the alleged misappropriations. Nor have any school board members even hinted that it might be fair for the community to wait to see if the accusations against the district’s two former leaders are true.

Our reporting over the years showed that the school board approved some, but certainly not all, of the expenditures for which McCartney is now being blamed.

In May of 2002, John Cole, then president of the school board, said of the superintendent’s contract, "What the board and the superintendent did is, we have a senior superintendent with 13 years of service now, and several hundred sick days gathered...Part of the increase is just a salary increase of 4 percent. There’s nothing in his contract that gives him other benefits."

The board liked McCartney and the job he was doing and wanted to keep his salary and benefits competitive with other superintendents.

Cole had told The Enterprise six years earlier on McCartney’s contract extension, "The desire to retain McCartney was unquestioned."

In May of 2003, The Enterprise again wrote about a pay increase for the superintendent. While the raise doesn’t seem reasonable on the surface, it actually represents a very good deal, said Robert Baron, who was the school board’s vice president at the time. McCartney had accumulated $100,000 worth of sick leave in the course of his tenure, Baron said. The district wanted to keep a capable superintendent on, so the board negotiated the raise, he said. Some money from the sick leave was taken into the schedule and the rest was cleared from the slate, Baron, said.

"He actually gave money back to the school district," said Baron of McCartney in 2003.

Pofit told us last week that the school board members aren’t versed in the contract because it is something that sits in a file, and they never really go back to it. And, he said, McCartney wrote his own contract and didn’t have it reviewed by a lawyer as he promised. The district should have its lawyer review a contract before the board approves it and the board should know what’s in a contract. A school board, made up of elected representatives of the people, is responsible for what it ratifies.

The same day as the press conference, Jan. 24, the district filed two lawsuits — one against each administrator — to try to recoup the funds. The court papers say that, by reason of the board’s "long-standing fiduciary relationship" with McCartney, it relied on him "for information concerning compensation and overall management of district personnel."

An elected school board is legally responsible for the superintendent it hires. The language in the suit makes it sound like the board is blaming McCartney for its own lack of oversight.

But, by the accounts that were current and published in our paper at the time the contracts were signed — and no one objected to those accounts — the board was very much in favor of paying McCartney the agreed-upon amounts.

When McCartney’s and Marturano's contracts were up for renewal, the lawsuits allege, in 2002 and 1999 respectively, both men convinced the board that they were entitled to reimbursement for unused sick time, so the board, through resolution, approved paying them extra money in their salaries over the course of three years before retiring. This also boosted their retirement packages, the school district claims in court papers.

When Marturano first heard of the allegations — that he collected extra vacation and sick leave compensation without permission — he thought it would all be settled quickly once his contract was reviewed, he said.

"It’s all spelled out in the contract," Marturano said. He didn't do anything that was not permissible, he said.

We filed a Freedom of Information request with the school district and also asked President Pofit for copies of those contracts. None have been forthcoming.

In a letter sent out to school-district residents, at taxpayers’ expense, Pofit condemns McCartney and Marturano and says, "...We will do our best to answer all inquiries." He goes on, "But please understand that civil proceedings are underway to recover the money and criminal proceedings could commence. Thus, we may need to limit our responses in order not to undermine our efforts to obtain justice."

Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, has assured us that the contracts are a matter of public record.

"Litigation has not changed their character," said Freeman. "The contracts are just as public now as they were before litigation....They must disclose the contracts," he said of the district.

The school district stalled last month, too, when we asked for information we were entitled to on a teaching aide’s leave; he has since been arrested for rape.

Pofit closes his letter to Voorheesville residents with this statement: "We ask for your patience and trust that those whom you have elected to the Board of Education will pursue this matter aggressively and always with the best interests of the community at heart."

A lot of patience will be needed. One of the attorneys in the Albany County District Attorney's Office, when asked this week how long an investigation into the audit could take, told us, "Other cases in other counties have taken well over a year to investigate."

He also said there were no set targets in the investigation. "I don’t know where it’s going to go. We haven’t focused on anything or eliminated anything," he said when asked if the district attorney would pursue charges against McCartney, against Marturano, or against the school board.

"The facts are the facts," he said. "We’re looking for the truth."

So are we.

If the school board truly has "the best interest of the community at heart" it would be wise to let up on the rhetoric of accusatory outrage and to release the information to which the public is entitled.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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