Bayport-Blue Point Board of Education President James March issued a second statement Tuesday night regarding the controversy over a BOE welcome dinner event for the district’s new school chief, stating it was an “honest mistake” and that it is time to “move on.”
Board members also spoke on the issue during the board's regular monthly meeting, asking the district’s legal counsel for insight on checks and balances regarding breach of district policies and issuing their own apologies regarding the incident. Two of the newest board members pledged to keep a focus on ensuring fiscal oversight and being more responsible to adhering to district policy.
“We dodged a bullet,” said Trustee Rebecca Campbell, who was elected in May along with BOE VP John Lynch and Trustee Bill Milligan, following a campaign focused on bringing greater transparency to district decision-making and budget review. She questioned the district’s attorney, John Gross, as well as Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Operations Michael Cipriani, on how the board can avoid such potential issues in the future.
The furor was ignited by residents’ protest the event was being paid for with public monies, which several residents claimed was a policy breach. March acknowledged it was a policy infraction last week in his initial statement, and Tuesday night district leaders noted the board expenditure would have been denied when it was processed by the district’s internal audit review process.
“So if this bill payment had come into the district’s finance office it would have died,” queried Campbell. The answer from was yes from Cipriani, who then explained the system of financial checks and balances districts now follow given the Roslyn school district financial scandal many years ago.
“The auditors would have caught this,” said Cipriani.
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Campbell also questioned why legal counsel did not advise the board about the policy regarding use of public funds for such events. Gross said that while he and an associate of his firm, Antonia Hamblin, who had been serving as the district’s lawyer at meetings, were aware the board was planning a welcome event they had no knowledge of the plan to use public funds.
“If we had learned of that we would have advised the board it was not correct policy,” said Gross, who also suggested providing board members with seminars regarding district policy and rules in the future. He said he has advised boards “for decades” on such issues and “would have nipped this in the bud” if he or Hamblin had been aware of how the event was to be funded.
The dinner event at Blue, a Blue Point restaurant, was attended by 35 people including the board, administrators, bargaining unit leaders and other district staff.
The final tally was $1,081 for the prix-fixe $24 meals and did not include a cash bar.
According to documents released by the district via a Freedom of Information Request by a resident, Trustee Bill Milligan paid $361 for 10 of the meals including $52 in sales tax, Campbell paid $309 and board members paid the remaining $411 in private funds.
No district credit card payment took place the night of the event, said officials, and a district employee’s personal credit card was used to secure the private dining event.
“We recognized the mistake, admitted it and no tax dollars were used,” said March.
In his apology statement Milligan stated the episode was “fundamentally wrong.”
“You can apologize over and over but it means nothing if you don’t take corrective action,” said Milligan, who also pledged to ensure that the board discusses such topics, such as a dinner event, in a public forum and not during executive session meetings.
“We’re going to put some steps in place to meet the Open Meetings law,” he told the audience. “We are going to better police ourselves and moderate and make sure items [discussed in executive session] pass the litmus test in all cases.”