Longtime North Merrick Board of Education Trustee Wendy Gargiulo — who also represents the district on the Central High School District board — abruptly resigned last week. In her resignation letter, she alleged harassment and intimidation by members of the public and the teachers union.
The school board called a special meeting on Feb. 13, the day after trustees received Gargiulo’s letter, to accept her resignation.
“It is my opinion that the North Merrick Board of Trustees has been taken over by those seeking to serve themselves and special interests rather than the district’s children and residents,” Gargiulo wrote.
Some community activists have for years argued against the influence of the North Merrick Faculty Association in school elections. Gargiulo agreed, and she was the last trustee not backed by the local union. Last year, union-backed candidates Vincent Lentini and Michelle Gordon unseated incumbents Steve Enella and Todd Ransom.
The day after the 2018 election, Trustee John Pinto resigned. At the time, rumors on social media suggested he did so in protest of growing union influence on the board, although he would not comment.
Jeanette Deutermann, the North Bellmore mother who founded the education advocacy group Long Island Opt Out, said she had never seen anything like North Merrick’s situation. “It’s very, very concerning,” she said. “The union essentially flipped the board.”
Deutermann said that NMFA members crossed a “moral line” in campaigning for trustees. Teachers stood at the Fayette School on election night, urging residents to vote for their candidates — which was atypical, she said. Deutermann called their presence at the polls “intimidating.”
“The union has a strange, powerful voice in what should be a community board of education election,” Deutermann added.
Matt Kuschner, a former trustee who attended Saturday’s meeting, disagreed. The teachers are “allowed to support anyone they want,” he said, and any animosity stems from supporters whose candidates lost their seats. Kuschner said that the board is now “moving in the right direction” and that the current trustees are all “independent thinkers . . . their agenda is kids,” he said.
Kuschner’s wife, Sheila, is a teacher in North Merrick and a member of the NMFA.
Suzanne Winkel, president of the NMFA, agreed that union members are within their rights to campaign for trustees. “It shouldn’t be a concern,” she said, “because we’ve been backing candidates for years. There was no attempt to intimidate. We’re invested in the district, and any endorsements are for candidates who would be great for the schools.”
Winkel also added that any financial contributions from the NMFA were minimal — “maybe $400 between the candidates,” she said, amounting to postcards sent to residents’ homes, signage and robocalls.
There is now a rule in North Merrick that prevents electioneering on school grounds; however, it still goes on at the North Merrick Library, where voting takes place, Gargiulo said.
Gargiulo’s claims of intimidation also extended to recent board meetings, where she said she faced harsh pushback after being the sole “no” vote on the district’s new teacher contracts.
At the Jan. 8 meeting, Gordon singled out Gargiulo, asking why she characterized the contract as not “fiscally responsible,” leading to her no vote.
Gargiulo said that she did not refer to it as fiscally irresponsible — just unfair and inequitable when compared to North Merrick’s sister districts. She said that there were not enough “givebacks” from teachers and explained that her vote was based on the limited requirements of the instructors.
Common stipulations, such as required after-school or extra-help hours,were absent, she said, and there was a reduction in the days for meet-the-teacher nights. Additionally, teachers in the North Bellmore and Merrick districts are required to be at the schools shortly before the students. In North Merrick, there was no such requirement.
The remainder of the board stood by their votes.
Deutermann said she had never seen a teacher contract without extra help included. She described it as a “cushy” contract — something the association would naturally fight for. Gargiulo’s disapproving vote was painted as an anti-teacher vote, she said, when she was just questioning why every other district has “a piece where the kids get more.”
At the Feb. 12 meeting, Gargiulo faced backlash. Approximately 60 teachers wearing black union T-shirts attended the meeting, and entered Fayette’s auditorium as a group, according to resident Mary Keene, a member of Concerned Residents of North Merrick. Winkel said that is an overestimate — there were around 40, she said. Gargiulo said they numbered up to 100.
Winkel, also a teacher in the district, was permitted to read a letter during the public comment period.
“The question was asked, ‘What does the contract do for the children?’” Winkel read. “A contract is a legal document that describes working conditions between the employee and employer. A contract does not include the many things that we, as educators, do on a daily basis. We nurture and care for the children in North Merrick in many ways beyond delivering instruction.
“So, when I hear a trustee of the board say that we should be viewed as positions and not people, I say, ‘How insulting,’” she went on. “We teach our children that bullying is wrong, and that we should not be bystanders when a bully is present. It is my hope that more members of the community and board will do the same.”
The statement was met with applause from various board members. “Thank you very much,” remarked President Jennifer Hyland. “We definitely appreciate the staff of our district and all that you do, especially for our children.”
Winkel again on Monday denied that the statement was intended to intimidate — “There were teachers whose feelings were hurt,” she said. “We just wanted to share how we felt, that we’re more than positions. We’re people.”
She added that teachers meet the requirements present in other contracts, as a majority get to the school early, stay late and offer extra help, regardless of contract stipulations.
In a statement, Hyland said any accusations of harassment are “unsubstantiated.”
“Historically, board candidates have been endorsed by organizations that have campaigned on their behalf,” she wrote. “Board elections have been conducted above reproach and trustees have won their seats fairly, by taxpayer vote. Our board trustees are community members who are volunteering their time and talent to serve the best interests of the North Merrick School District. We are constantly focused on our values of what is best for students, fair for adults, and sustainable for the district.”
For Gargiulo, however, it was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“I almost fell out of my chair,” she said after her resignation on Sunday. “I was waiting for the board president to stop it.” She said the statement, as well as the teachers’ presence, acted as “intimidation” and “harassment” and was meant to bully her.
Gargiulo also said that questioning contracts was her job — “it’s my fiduciary responsibility as a board member,” she said. Winkel’s statement made the issue “personal,” she added, and the board was simply “running a business that is funded by the tax payers’ dollars.”
Gargiulo’s claims of harassment also stemmed from inquiries into her residency. Kuschner and Winkel alleged that Gargiulo moved out of North Merrick, which would render her seat vacant. Gargiulo instead called it a “clerical error.”
Her fiancé purchased a new home in Suffolk County, she said, but she is still a resident in North Merrick, despite the real estate investment. A board investigation into the matter would have cost the district “thousands,” she said. “The district has no money. I won’t allow them to spend anything for a vendetta.”
The board will vote on how to proceed with the vacant seat at their next meeting. Their options are to fill the seat with the person that garnered the next-highest vote count at the previous election; accept applications; leave it vacant; or hold a special election. The BOCES Superintendent can also appoint someone, although the move is extremely uncommon, Hyland said.
Gargiulo’s resignation also leaves a vacant seat on the Central High School District board. Lentini nominated Gordon to fill the role, while Hyland nominated board Vice President Tracey Miller, who was not present at the meeting. The board will discuss proceedings at its next meeting, Hyland said.
Despite leaving the board, Gargiulo said she plans to remain a voice in the community.
“Now there’s no censorship,” she said. “I hope North Merrick residents will dig deeper into who’s running during elections, and instead of mud-slinging, raise awareness.”
Editor's note: In the original version of this story, it was written that an advertisement in the Herald for Gargiulo's 2016 campaign was funded by Long Island Opt Out. This is incorrect, as the ad was funded by residents within the community. The Herald regrets the error.