By LINDA KELLETT
For the Recorder
ST. JOHNSVILLE -- Officials connected with the newly merged Oppenheim-Ephratah and St. Johnsville school districts have been placed on administrative leave.
That was the tersely worded message posted to the districts' official Facebook page shortly after 4 p.m. Thursday.
As noted in the post: "As of Thursday, Jan. 31, Oppenheim-Ephratah Superintendent Dan M. Russom and St. Johnsville Elementary School Principal Christopher Fatta were placed on administrative leave until further notice by HFM BOCES District Superintendent Dr. Patrick Michel. Further information will be released if and when appropriate."
During a joint meeting of the two boards held in the St. Johnsville Junior/Senior High School auditorium to address merger-related progress Thursday night, O-ECS board members voted to appoint Michel as O-ECS acting superintendent effective immediately.
In order to address rumors that are starting to circulate, Michel after the meeting said that he didn't want people jumping to conclusions.
"What we're dealing with here has nothing to do with children or with fiscal impropriety. It has nothing to do with funds being used improperly," he said.
Michel said simply that "a mistake was made."
Everyone is entitled to make a mistake, he added.
When asked about the process that is taking place, Michel explained that he had "received phone calls from concerned people. I called [Campione-Lawrence] and asked her to investigate the allegations. She reported back to me, and I felt it reached the level that I needed to get involved."
He said he had been at the district all day, interviewing people in Oppenheim-Ephratah and St. Johnsville. Additionally, he interviewed Russom and took actions that he thought necessary at the time.
While Michel is conducting the ongoing investigation, ultimately it was the individual boards' decision to place the administrators on administrative leave, said St. Johnsville District Superintendent Laura Campione-Lawrence.
O-ECS board members are "deeply appreciative of what Mr. Russom has done for the district," said Michel. "He's done a great job for Oppenheim-Ephratah. A lot of the things presented tonight [that is, information related to programs and technology] are because of Dan Russom."
However, "the board feels strongly that Mr. Russom is not the person to lead the district to completion," he added.
When asked if that meant that Russom was being discharged, Michel said that was not the case.
Administrative leave is a temporary leave from a job assignment, with pay and benefits intact.
Being placed on administrative leave does not imply guilt or innocence, said Michel. It does, however, make an investigation "pure" because the individuals being investigated aren't present.
Neither administrator is allowed to enter the district until such time as the boards take action, said Michel. He confirmed that both are continuing to be paid.
A St. Johnsville parent during the meeting asked who would be in charge during Fatta's absence.
Campione-Lawrence said that she would be filling in at the D.H. Robbins Elementary School.
Michel said Russom has been superintendent of the O-ECS district for nine years.
Fatta was hired to serve as elementary principal at St. Johnsville during the middle of the 2011-2012 school year. Prior to that, he was Oppenheim-Ephratah's K-12 principal, according to a Jan. 26, 2012 article in the Courier-Standard-Enterprise.