BOCES official to head district

OPPENHEIM – The Oppenheim-Ephratah Central School District is now on its third administrator in a week after the Board of Education transferred interim superintendent responsibilities from one BOCES superintendent to another.

Mark Vivacqua, the superintendent of the Herkimer-Fulton-Hamilton-Otsego Board of Cooperative Educational Services in Herkimer, was appointed interim superintendent during a special meeting Tuesday. The board rescinded its earlier resolution that gave that job to Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES superintendent Patrick Michel, who relieved Superintendent Dan Russom of his duties on Thursday.

Russom and Chris Fatta, Oppenheim-Ephratah’s former principal who now heads the D.H. Robbins Elementary School in St. Johnsville, are both on paid administrative leave after Michel and St. Johnsville Superintendent Laura Campione-Lawrence began an investigation into complaints against the men. School officials have not disclosed the nature of the complaints.

The district likely would not take any action on Russom’s status before its meeting at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 13 meeting. The meeting is a joint meeting with St. Johnsville and will begin with a tour of the Oppenheim-Ephratah building at 5:30 p.m.

State education law requires BOCES leaders to act as interim superintendents at no additional pay when posts are temporarily vacant within their district. Oppenheim-Ephratah will join HFM BOCES in July when the district merges with St. Johnsville, but it currently is part of Herkimer-Fulton-Hamilton-Otsego BOCES.

Michel said in an email he took the lead because the initial complaint he received last Wednesday night was about issues in St. Johnsville, which is in the HFM BOCES district. He said he followed up early Thursday with Campione-Lawrence, who investigated and called him a half-hour later to tell him of concerns about Russom.

Michel said after reviewing evidence and interviewing St. Johnsville staff Thursday, he contacted Vivacqua, who suggested Michel continue the process rather than turn over the investigation. Michel said he informed Oppenheim-Ephratah Board of Education President Ben Conte and got permission to interview Russom.

“I had also informed [Conte] that it is my practice to send home the person being investigated after they are interviewed,” Michel said. “It has been my experience that letting the person stay muddies the investigation.”

Michel said he interviewed six people at Oppenheim-Ephratah on Thursday and prepared a report for the school board, which already had planned a joint meeting that night. But he was unable to reach Vivacqua before the meeting. He told the board in an executive session he would be unable to serve as interim superintendent, but the school’s attorney told him he could hold the position in an acting role until Vivacqua could be “brought up to speed.”

Vivacqua could not be reached for comment this morning.

Conte said “the district was ready to act” last week and appointed Michel as interim superintendent for “expediency.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, residents Mary Mosher and Barbara Smith told board members they felt more information should be released about the accusations against Russom. Vivacqua said there are no charges and school officials have been acting responsibly by following the direction of their attorney and not disclosing too much information.

“Things like this have legal and contractual implications, so it wouldn’t be advisable [for board members] to say anything when they’re advised otherwise,” he said. “What comes out will come out when it’s supposed to, according to the laws of New York state and contractual obligations.”

Reached at his home Tuesday night, Russom said he hadn’t been informed Vivacqua would be taking over the district. He declined any other comment.

This is Russom’s eighth year as Oppenheim-Ephratah’s superintendent. He joined the district after 27 years in Northville, most spent as a history teacher. He became high school principal in 2001 and was appointed superintendent in Northville in 2004.

Russom is in the final year of his contract, which paid him $127,920 in 2012, according to public records. The contract says Russom can be disciplined or discharged for cause, but he has the right to have the charges in writing and is entitled to a hearing. If a hearing is held, the board would need to act on the hearing officer’s report and recommendation within 20 days. Russom can be represented by an attorney, but he would be responsible for the cost, the contract says.

Under the contract, if Russom retires, he will be eligible to stay under the district’s health and medical insurance because he served more than six years. Seventy percent of the cost would be paid by the school district. If Russom were to resign, he would need to give the district 60 days’ notice, according to the contract, although he and the district can terminate the contract any time by mutual agreement.

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