ACSU budget officer resigns; district faces yet another search

MIDDLEBURY — Addison Central Supervisory Union (ACSU) Business Manager Paula VanMinos resigned on Wednesday after having been missing from the job for more than two weeks.
Her resignation can at the same time that ACSU leaders had been poised to dismiss her in view of having not responded to her supervisors’ e-mails and phone calls since Dec. 22.
“It is with deep sorrow that due to unfortunate circumstances that I have to submit my letter of resignation effective immediately,” VanMinos wrote in a letter submitted to the ACSU offices. “Due to the circumstances I can not be so far from my family all week and can not move them like we originally planned. You will receive an original copy of my letter and the laptop by the end of the week. Sorry for any inconvenience this may cause.”
VanMinos’ prolonged absence — coinciding with a family illness — came at the worst possible time for ACSU school boards that are feverishly trying to get their 2012-2013 budget proposals finalized in time to be placed on Town Meeting Day warnings and ballots. The predicament also prompted officials to second-guess the hiring last September of VanMinos, who had been fired last year from her previous job as director of operations with the Jordan-Elbridge Central School District in Jordan, N.Y., following a legal controversy over the manner in which some favorable financial clauses were written into her employment contract.
ACSU interim Superintendent Gail Conley confirmed on Monday the district had stopped paying VanMinos’ $65,682 annual salary. Her total annual compensation with the ACSU (including benefits) was $82,165.
VanMinos was the second consecutive business manager within a year with whom the ACSU is poised to sever ties under strained circumstances.
The last ACSU business manager, Sharon Stearns, resigned her post last May after having been placed on administrative leave by district Superintendent Lee Sease on the previous Jan. 6. The ACSU board had offered to return Stearns to her job last spring if she agreed to several conditions, including that she use the “services of a coach to assist her in improving managerial skills and interpersonal relationships with all peers and subordinates.”
Stearns, who had served as ACSU business manager for nine years, rejected the board’s conditions for her reinstatement, calling them “onerous, unreasonable, intolerable and unacceptable.”
Stearns last Sept. 13 filed a lawsuit in Rutland County Superior Court against the ACSU, claiming — among other things — that she was bullied by Sease and then placed on administrative leave after she complained about his behavior.
The ACSU did not renew Sease’s contract, which expired last June.
The ACSU hired former Chittenden Central Supervisory Union Business Manager Roger Derby to work on the district’s budget matters on an interim basis during Stearns’ absence. Tragically, Derby died suddenly on June 26.
One of Conley’s first tasks after replacing Sease in July was to organize a search for a new business manager. An initial search produced four candidates that rated interviews and two finalists with whom the district could not come to contract terms.
The search committee reconvened and conducted a second search that produced a handful of additional candidates, according to Conley. But that second search failed to yield applicants with prior experience as a public schools business manager.
But the committee subsequently received and reviewed VanMinos’ resume and saw someone who had professional experience that seemed a good match for the job, according to Conley.
“We collected reference materials and there was a screening committee that helped me,” Conley said. “The screening committee interviewed the candidates and did some phone and Internet research.”
The screening committee was made up of ACSU administrative staff, according to Conley.
Mark Perrin, chairman of the ACSU board, said he had had confidence in the screening committee’s recommendation of VanMinos; that’s why the board hires professional staff.
“I don’t second guess these kinds of things,” he said.
It was during the screening process that Conley and his colleagues became aware of what he termed “a complicated lawsuit” in New York’s court system involving VanMinos while in her previous job at Jordan-Elbridge. The school’s former principal, treasurer and assistant superintendent had filed the lawsuit against the district, VanMinos and then-interim Superintendent Lawrence Zacher. The plaintiffs claimed that two Jordan-Elbridge board members and VanMinos developed — outside of the scrutiny of the full board — a new contract for VanMinos that included a “substantial severance payment” (more than $300,000) if she was not granted tenure, according to a copy of the lawsuit. The plaintiffs claimed the compensation was a “payoff for (VanMinos’) critical role in the board’s previous attacks on the petitioners,” according to the lawsuit.
VanMinos had asked the Jordan-Eldridge district to pay for her defense against the lawsuit.
“We viewed (this lawsuit) as independent of her professional work, which was reviewed as very positive,” Conley said in a memo to the ACSU board. “Paula’s earlier work (with the ACSU) was also rated as very positive and effective.”
Conley said even Jordan-Elbridge officials whom the ACSU contacted before hiring her gave positive accounts of VanMinos’ work performance.
So ACSU officials, in their reading of the lawsuit against VanMinos, inferred that she had perhaps been targeted as a “whistle-blower” by some disgruntled former Jordan-Elbridge employees, according to Conley.
“When we were interviewing her, it looked like she was collateral damage to other things that were happening in the district,” Conley said.
He added VanMinos had not yet been fired by Jordan-Elbridge at the time the ACSU was considering her as business manager.
But VanMinos drew additional scrutiny from school officials following reports in the Syracuse Post-Standard newspaper that she had been having a personal relationship with Zacher, her boss. A Jordan-Elbridge district lawyer alleged that “Zacher helped VanMinos mislead the district by not disclosing their personal relationship and the highly favorable revisions to VanMinos’ contract before the board approved it,” according to a Sept. 9 issue of the Post-Standard. The district reviewed VanMinos’ emails and concluded she was involved in a personal relationship with Zacher before he recommended her contract to the board, according to the Post-Standard.
Conley wrote a memo to the ACSU board on Monday updating them on VanMinos’ tenuous employment with the ACSU and referenced her past legal problems.
“The legal controversy that we know now is more than we knew earlier, because a federal lawsuit was filed in November,” Conley said.
Conley disputed the suggestion that the ACSU screening committee had perhaps settled on a candidate with a controversial past because the position needed to be filled quickly to begin budget preparations for the district’s high school, middle school and seven elementary schools.
“She had two to three years’ experience with our business office’s new software program,” Conley said of VanMinos. “She had all of the hard-core credentials we were looking for.”
VanMinos was allowed to do ACSU work from home and at medical facilities while tending to a family illness. VanMinos had responded to calls and e-mails from her ACSU bosses until Dec. 22, at which time she ceased all communication, according to Conley.
“At this time, she has violated her contract with us and may not be able to recover,” Conley wrote in his memo to the board.
A telephone message left with VanMinos on Monday went unreturned as the Addison Independent went to press on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the ACSU is getting some help in the role of a business manager. Former Essex North Superintendent Wayne Murray, serving as Addison Central’s part-time financial officer, is helping prepare the ACSU schools’ draft 2012-2013 spending plans. Conley said VanMinos left with some of the budget drafts 90-percent complete and some just 10-percent complete.
“Folks ought to know that this has made the budget development process a little more difficult, but the people working in the budget office are working well and picking up any slack there might be,” said Conley, who estimated the spending plans are seven to 10 days behind schedule.
Conley said the ACSU will divert VanMinos’ salary to pay Murray, so he doesn’t anticipate financial overruns associated with the extra help.
School board chairman Perrin said the district is grateful to Murray for helping it in its time of need.
“Our people in the business office are bucking up to get the job done,” Perrin said. “We’ll get through this.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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