Breakdown of Judge's Ruling Ordering Removal of Manalapan HS Principal
A closer look at how Judge Donald Stein ruled in his initial decision ordering Jeff Simon removed from his post.
Three tenure charges were filed against Manalapan High School Principal Jeff Simon by the Freehold Regional High School District in late February 2012 and the case finally came to a close on January 4, 2013.
Administrative Law Judge Donald Stein listened to testimony from 22 witnesses and released an initial decision on Jan. 22 ordering Simon be removed from his position at the high school.
Stein found that Simon was in violation of his tenure for “unbecoming conduct” and “a willful failure to read and follow the applicable polices and procedures.” However, Stein did not find Simon to be unfit to serve in a position of educational leadership, as was asserted by the district.
Stein said that Simon had outstanding evaluations and did not receive any notice of problems or was told to change his conduct.
“There is no indication in the record that [Simon’s] acts were premeditated, cruel or vicious, or done with intent to harm,” Stein wrote. “They were a misguided effort to implement policy and make administrative decisions.”
Break Down of Tenure Charges
The first charge lists five counts that allege Simon violated district polices in regard to the handling of student activity funds in a dishonest way.
Count one involves the improper collection of money for security guard payment during a Mr. MHS event in May 2011. Charles Janetti, a science teacher at Manalapan High School, testified that Simon asked him to give him $300 to $400 of the Mr. MHS proceeds to prepay the security guards at the event. District policy requires that security guards never be paid in cash, but by voucher only.
Janetti spoke with another employee and a union representative about what to do in the situation, and the union representative, Victoria McKeon advised Janetti to listen to Simon. Janetti also testified that Simon told him that he had to pay the security guards in cash and that if the matter became an issue both he and the security guards would deny taking the money.
Simon and the two security guards in question, Edward Guerri and Fran Hayes, testified that this never occurred. The security guards did submit vouchers for $52 each and received that amount in a subsequent paycheck, the initial tenure charge revealed.
The judge felt that there was motive stemming from Hayes and Guerri, seeing that if they did take the cash they would not want that information to be made public. The judge also stated that there appeared to be no bias or lack of credibility coming from Janetti and McKeon’s testimony. Therefore, Stein found Simon guilty of violating district policy.
Count Two (Dismissed)
Count two alleges that Simon authorized extra duty assignments and payment authorization in the assignment of Jay Lagomarsino as after school supervisor, however no documents refer to Lagomarsino’s appointment or payment.
Simon testified that he assigned Lagomarsino to drive elderly fans back and forth from the fields to the parking lot during home games. Phil Ricci, the supervisor of extracurricular activities at Manalapan High School, received payroll vouchers for Lagomarsino’s work, but he said he received three sets of vouchers for Lagomarsino when no home games were scheduled. Ricci said he refused to approve these vouchers and said that Simon signed his own signature in the location designated for Ricci’s signature on each voucher.
Superintendent Charles Sampson and Dr. Suzanne Koegler, the district’s Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources, testified that Lagomarsino’s position was never given a job description and he was not hired and approved by the district. Simon testified that the position was necessary and that he believed the position was never posted because Lagomarsino had performed the job previously, which is consistent with district policy that once a person is hired for a position the position does not have to be posted every year after.
Stein found that the district did not have enough proof of the allegation that Simon authorized extra duty assignments and payment, despite the fact that there is no evidence that the district approved the position. Therefore, Stein dismissed this count.
Count three alleges that missing play proceeds from the December 2011 High School play were mishandled. Six performances of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” yielded cash proceeds of $4,652. The money was collected from various sources and placed in envelopes with the amount written on them.
Simon gave Louise Delasalla, the Manalapan High School principal’s secretary, $976 in cash and $1,400 in checks for the play proceeds, which Delasalla placed in the school’s internal safe for a future deposit.
Delasalla testified that she found empty envelopes from the play proceeds in Simon’s office. The empty envelopes had the amount of money written on them which totaled about $4,462, which was $1,993 less than what Simon had previously provided her.
Vernoica Knittel, the student assistant counselor at Manalapan High School, testified that she walked into Simon’s office where she saw four stacks of money on his desk. When Knittel entered the room she said that Simon quickly removed his hands from the desk and onto his lap.
Simon testified that Delasalla said she needed the money so he removed the funds from the safe and began counting it. Knittel came in his office while he was counting, Simon said, and he left his office and provided her with the cash and unopened envelopes. He testified that he asked Knittel to finish counting and make copies of the checks.
Stein questions Simon’s credibility in his initial decision, calling Simon’s argument that Delasalla made up the testimony “farfetched” since the testimony was substantiated by other witnesses, consistent, and photographs of the envelopes were taken as evidence. Therefore, Stein found Simon in violation of mishandling the play proceeds and at fault for not placing them in a safe, as is mandated by the Student Activities Handbook.
Count four involves the transfer of student activity funds to purchase championship rings. Simon testified that he removed $6,000 out of the yearbook account and transferred it to the business account in order to pay for the championship rings for the baseball team.
Simon stated that he never read the Student Activity Handbook and was unaware of the stipulation that money raised by a club had to be solely used for that club; Simon testified that he had done this before and was never made aware of the fat that it was an issue.
Stein, accordingly, sustained the count that Simon violated district policy of improperly transferring funds from the yearbook account to pay for championship rings for the baseball team.
Count five alleges missing football game proceeds and a cover up. After a football game in 2009, $120 from ticket sales went missing. Susan O’Donnell, a district teacher and financial manager, immediately told Simon of the missing funds.
O’Donnell testified that she sold tickets until halftime and followed procedures by placing the money in a lock box and providing the money to the athletic director to be placed in a safe in the main building. She said she counted the large bills before providing the funds to the athletic director.
The next day, O’Donnell realized that $120 was missing from the night before. Both Simon and the athletic director said that they did not know about the missing money.
O’Donnell testified that Simon told her to cover up for the missing funds by using til money to make up for the $120 and then sell the first 40 adults surplus tickets for $3 each, which were not accounted for.
Simon testified that he never discussed a cover up with O’Donnell, but that she did discuss the missing money with him.
Stein said that he found the witnesses more credible than Simon. Stein stated that he found that $120 was missing, Simon never reported it, and then covered it up by creating a plan to replace it without telling anyone. The count was sustained.
Charge two alleges that Simon violated numerous policies and procedures which endangered students and faculty.
Count One and Count Two
Count One and Count Two assert that Simon defied district policy during a fire drill. The testimony involved five specific fire drills between the 2009-2010 school year and the 2011-2012 school year, some of which were rapid dismissal fire drills.
“The evidence is overwhelming that these rapid dismissal fire drills are not fire drills,” Stein said. “There were no outside assembly points, no attendance taken outside of the building, students did not return to the building to be accounted for, and they were preannounced.”
Simon also testified that he never read the district fire drill policy, that he had only perused it. However, no policy for rapid dismissal fire drills exists and the school policy for fire drills is very specific. Hence, Stein found Simon in violation of district policy by conducting rapid dismissal fire drills instead of the regular traditional fire drills and failing to conduct the appropriate number of statutorily required money fire drills on five occasions.
Count Three and Count Four
Counts Three and Four involve fire drills during pizza sales. Simon allegedly allowed two pizza sales for Cancer Awareness to take place during a fire drill at the end of a half day in 2010 and again in 2011.
Eileen Pantano, an English teacher at Manalapan High School, testified that the pizza was sold to students as they made their way out of the building during the drill.
Simon said that no pizza was sold during the drill, but ten minutes prior. However, Michelle Lilly, the supervisor of social studies, art, music and law enforcement for the district, testified that Simon told his secretary to make an announcement telling students that they could get pizza on their way out of school during the rapid dismissal fire drill.
The assistant principal at the time, John Teague, testified that Simon did not give him any direction or instruction on coordinating the pizza sales with the fire drills. Simon testified that Teague was informed to not ring the bell until after the sale.
Stein said he found the district witnesses to be more credible, as Teague had no stake in the outcome and Pantano’s testimony was corroborated by other witnesses. As a result, Stein found that Simon violated district policy by allowing pizza sales to take place during a rapid dismissal fire drill.
Count Five alleges that Simon allowed his secretarial staff to stay in the building during a fire drill during November 2011. Denise Scanga, a supervisor at Manalapan High School, Lavetta Ross, an Assistant Principal at the time, and Michelle Lilly were all present in a cabinet meeting with Simon when a rapid dismissal fire drill took place. All three women testified that Simon was running the meeting and continued it during the drill.
Simon denied having staff members stay in the building during the fire drill and referenced two emails that he sent at 12:06 and 12:07 that day, explaining that there were no computers in the room and that he did not have a phone with the capabilities to send emails - meaning that he was in his office sending emails after the meeting. Also, he testified that the meeting ended at noon and that Lillly’s note marking that th meeting ended at 12:20 was altered.
Lilly and Scanga also testified that Simon was on his Blackberry during the meeting. Simon later admitted to owning a Blackberry, which does have the capabilities to send emails, contradicting his previous testimony.
Therefore, the judge found the women to be more credible and found Simon in violation of district policy by allowing staff to remain in the building during a rapid dismissal fire drill.
Count Six (Dismissed)
Count Six claims that Simon had a pep rally indoors instead of outside and 2,000 students were in attendance, which was well over the maximum capacity of 720. This count has been withdrawn by the district.
Count Seven (Dismissed)
Count Seven states that Simon decorated a girls’ bathroom with electrical devices, such as speakers and holiday lights, in close proximity to water sources.
Brian McNamee, a custodian at Manalapan High School, testified that he set up holiday decorations in the girls’ bathroom in December 2011, and had done so for many years.
The decorations consisted of lights, ornaments, an electrical cord, and an iPod in the ceiling tiles playing holiday music. McNamee received permission from his supervisor, Russell Heulitt, to do this in previous years. McNamee said that Simon was aware of the decorations and was never criticized about them.
Stein said that there is not enough proof that Simon knew exactly what the decorations consisted of, or that what was placed in the girls’ bathroom was a fire hazard, so the count was dismissed.
Charge Three (Dismissed)
Charge Three indicates that both Charge One and Charge Two indicate that Simon is unfit to serve as principal. This charge was dismissed.