Thursday, October 12, 2006

What a sorry episode

I can't stand it when people gossip about other people's sex lives. When you live in a small town — which still describes Riverhead, sort of — whispered rumors like that spread like wildfire.

My tolerance for that kind of salacious gossip is low because I was the subject of plenty of it myself. Heck, as a young, single town councilwoman 15 years or so ago, my sex life was legendary — according to the rumor mill. I heard rumors that had me carrying on with people I had never even met, let alone been intimate with. I'm fond of saying that if I'd had even half as much sex as I was rumored to have had back then, I'd still be smiling.

So I put no stock in rumors of this sort. And when I first heard the gossip about the "real reason" for school superintendent Paul Doyle's abrupt resignation last week, I discounted it completely. But holy cow, did that rumor spread. It was not only all over Riverhead within hours, it was even being repeated to us by a superintendent in another school district.

I decided to do what a responsible reporter should. When I reached Mr. Doyle by phone to interview him about his resignation, I told him what I'd heard and asked him to comment. I was expecting an indignant denial of the rumor that he was asked to resign because he was having a sexual relationship with a district employee. Instead, he said: "People are going to say what they're going to say."

Ordinarily, I couldn't care less about this kind of thing. It's none of my business — unless, of course, my husband or daughters are involved.

How Mr. Doyle spends his private time or who he spends it with is his private business and has no place on the pages of this newspaper, assuming no laws are being broken.

But the distinguishing factor here is the notion of private time, since it seems the superintendent's indiscretion included not only a district employee, but also time spent during the regular business day, when district taxpayers were paying him — both of them — to work. That's a problem.

Another, maybe even bigger, problem is how district officials handled this situation. District officials hired a private investigator to follow the superintendent. They then confronted him with evidence obtained by the investigator and sought his resignation. I suppose that's a perfectly reasonable course of action.

But I have a hard time accepting that district taxpayers will continue to pay this man's salary, with benefits, through the end of the year — to the tune of some $48,000. That's three months' worth of his annual salary of $180,000, plus health insurance premiums at $1,000 per month. That's more than what some district taxpayers have to survive on for an entire year. That is absolutely unconscionable.

School board members, who should be held accountable to the public for their handling of this, won't talk to us about it. Mum's the word. It's a personnel matter, not for public discussion, they say. Malarky, I say. Having a sexual relationship with a subordinate is grounds for dismissal, doubly so if they are cavorting during business hours. His behavior exposed the district to a possible sexual harassment claim, as well. Instead of punishing this errant behavior, the Riverhead Board of Education chose to reward it by "reassigning" the superintendent to his home through Dec. 31. In other words, he got a free pass. And we're paying him for a three-month vacation, to boot.

Why? It was the path of least resistance. Terminating the superintendent "for cause" would take time and money — lawyers' fees, plus the superintendent's salary during the termination process. It could cost the district tens of thousands of dollars. Paying him a three-month severance to "make him go away" was a "business decision" the board had to make. Some board members expressed regret that they felt they had to choose expediency over what's right. They also said they were warned by district legal counsel not to speak to the press about the circumstances of Mr. Doyle's departure, or they could be "sued personally."

This whole sorry episode leaves me wondering what else our school board might be willing to sweep under the rug for the sake of cover-your-backside expediency or for fear of being sued.

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