Long-simmering tensions between Valley Central Board of Education President Melvin Wesenberg and Trustee Sheila Schwartz erupted into an ugly confrontation during an executive session following last Tuesday’s school board meeting, as Schwartz took to social media on Thursday morning to claim that Wesenberg verbally abused her and threatened her physically, leading her to call the police.
In a Facebook post on Jan. 24, Schwartz said that Wesenberg shouted vulgar obscenities at her in a hallway in the district office and then had to be held back by his colleagues. “When is it okay to attempt to cause physical harm to a woman and have to be restrained by two other men so they don’t harm them?” she wrote. “How is that professional behavior? I cannot wrap my head around being treated in such a manner that I had to fear my safety and call the police! Nothing justifies this behavior.”
In an email message three days following the incident, Wesenberg referred an interview request to Valley Central Superintendent John Xanthis. The superintendent had previously explained that the district would not making a comment on the situation on the advice of its counsel, noting that the incident is currently under investigation. Schwartz also declined further comment on the record, noting in an email that “under the advisement of the district’s counsel they have advised board members not to speak with reporters.”
On Monday, Trustee Joseph Byrne resigned from the Board of Education, just six days after the alleged incident took place. He resigned five months short of finishing his three-year term. “I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the board and consider it one of the greatest privileges of my life,” Byrne declared in a statement.
On social media, Schwartz explained that she had declined to press charges against Wesenberg but had filed an official complaint with the district. “How could someone treat a woman this way?” she wrote. “Do they treat their mother, daughter, sister, wife this way? I apologize I know I should probably keep this private but when it happens in public I don’t think I just can sit back and be silent about this. I have lost respect for so many people who condone harassment and behaviors such as these. Was anyone concerned for my safety? Hmmm, aside from the eight officers that showed up I don’t think so. Just to be clear, this is my own opinion and comments on an incident I was involved in this does not represent views or comments of VCSD (Valley Central School District) or BOE (Board of Education).”
Since Wesenberg succeeded Schwartz over the summer, the pair have traded sharp exchanges at numerous school board meetings. During the council’s Jan. 22 session, Schwartz asked Wesenberg if she could make a comment during a discussion about a proposed referendum package and he replied, “You’ve spoken three times already, so we’re going to let the people who’ve not spoken to have a chance.”
Later in the meeting, the board president also got into a testy back-and-forth with resident Don Berger during the public comment portion of the meeting. Berger brandished a copy of an email he received from Wesenberg regarding the salary of Assistant Superintendent Carleen Millsaps, who the district hired to handle the duties of Assistant Superintendent Lisa Raymond, who is away on family leave. Berger asked Wesenberg in the email exchange if it was true that Millsaps was being paid $1,000 a day for her services, and Wesenberg replied, “I think you may have been misinformed.”
After filing a Freedom of Information Law request, Berger secured the contract that confirmed the $1,000 salary. “I reached out to the board and asked one specific question about whether or not Mrs. Millsaps was in fact getting paid $1,000 a day,” Berger told the board. “So the answer I got was mysterious. It says here: ‘I think you may have been misinformed.’ Then I reached out to (Assistant Superintendent) Mike Bellarosa and he gave me the answer I was expecting, to file a FOIL request. So I did. I don’t know how someone can write an email to me saying I’m misinformed.” “You’re calling me a liar to my face,” Wesenberg interrupted as the men began to talk over each other. Byrne then intervened, asking for order to be restored.
Berger then criticized the council for approving the hire. “I’m outraged by this board approving anybody, I don’t think anybody in the education system should be paid $1,000 a day,” he said. “The residents of this town in the Valley Central School District and the teachers’ union should be outraged.”
The confrontations overshadowed the presentation that took place at the beginning of the evening from the CSArch architectural firm about the proposed public referendum to renovate the High School-Middle School complex parking lot. The firm presented the board with six options with price tags ranging from $7.8 million to over $20 million for a wide array of improvements to district schools.
The board ultimately decided not to select any of those options yet, asking the firm to return at the next meeting to present them with a stripped down package containing the parking lot upgrades, pool dehumidification at the school complex and new lighting at the high school auditorium. “I’d like to see the bare minimum and then maybe a couple of recommendations beyond that,” Trustee Conklin told the board.
CSArch will return with a reduced package to meet the board’s wishes. “The bare minimum option will be less than option one,” Thomas Ritzenthaler of CSArch informed the board. “It’s going to be what you need to get the DOT work executed and your building aid. That might be the lighting in the auditorium and the dehumidification in the pool.”
Xanthis argued that the district should have a sense of urgency to make traffic upgrades on Route 17K, particularly before the state Department of Transportation installs a pair of traffic lights outside the school campus, a project which has no defined timeline. “This is the third time we’ve met, and I understand the rationale of coming in and looking through the list, but this is my recommendation based on what I heard from the first time and the second time - I believe there’s some urgency to get the front of that building fixed,” Xanthis said to the council. “I also think there’s urgency to get it going before the state starts. The state could start in another two years, and they’ve said to these gentlemen (CSArch) that they’d hope and like for our work to be done prior to that. I know there’s a question about the cost to the community and I absolutely understand that, and I think at this point, after what happened last year and Brad Conklin’s point the last time is that there’s a lot of things we need to do but there’s nothing that includes things for kids. I’m asking our community that this is the urgency, and that we do this and the dehumidifier and the pool because that’s a health and safety issue. We’ve had some issues in there with condensation. Then we do the lights because they haven’t been done since 1972 and are hanging by tape. I believe we should do a concession stand. It doesn’t have to be over the top, but we need facilities for the public.”
The superintendent is hoping that the board will approve the framework of a referendum before the proposed project gets pushed into next year. “It doesn’t mean we have to select the time we have to do this in June or July, but it gives the gentlemen the wherewithal to start the process,” Xanthis said to the board. “You have some financial information and we can get you more up to date as it gets closer, and then you folks decide when it is you want to do it (the referendum). After the budget certainly, I wouldn’t recommend you do it before the budget. Maybe in the summer, maybe in September. But at least the process could begin. We keep pushing it down and that keeps pushing as back and back and that’s what my concern is.”