The Hadley-Luzerne school superintendent calls his district “my mountain.” And on that mountain, staff members say, Beecher Baker hires whomever he wants.
Since he was named superintendent two years ago, six former and current employees, speaking anonymously for fear of retribution, say that Baker’s hiring practices are troubling because they flout state education law. An analysis by the Times Union shows that during the current school year, seven people were either hired by Baker or placed in positions for which they were not state-certified.
Other questions surround the hiring of relatives of Eddie Joe Moulton, the president of the school board who oversees the district’s operations. Baker began the school year by hiring Moulton’s wife and sister-in-law. In December, his brother, Duane Moulton, along with his CMK Construction Management and Consulting firm, was offered an $80,000 job as “clerk of the works” to head the district’s $9 million capital project.
Baker shrugs off questions about his hires.
Employees’ missing credentials
Teachers/staff working outside of their qualifications.
Jeannine Bieber: Certified in chemistry and general sciences, teaches chemistry and physics.
Tyler Byrnes: Certified for gym, teaches gym and health.
Jonathan Granger: No certification, teaches music under an expired certification.
Meagan McEachron: Provisional certification as school counselor, served as substitute social worker (she has since left as the social worker returned).
Shannon McLean: Certified in K-5 special education, teaches grades 7-12 special education.
Samantha Novotarski: No certification, works as teaching assistant, daughter of school board member Greg Novotarski.
Susan Reardon: Certified in pre-K to grade 6 and in English grades 7-12, teaches family and consumer science to seventh-graders under a waiver.
Source: State Department of Education Teacher Certification Lookup
All in the family
Staff related to school board President Eddie Joe Moulton and their yearly salaries:
Chrissandra Moulton: Custodian, $27,107
Duane Moulton: Clerk of the works, $80,000
Julia Moulton: Teacher, $48,800
Megan Moulton: Part-time teaching assistant, $12,134
“Obviously, whomever you are conversing with has some sort of ax to grind with me and would like to damage my reputation in some way,” Baker said in a March email to the Times Union. “I have been here as an administrator for 15 years and have done my best to do what is good for kids and school community, and will continue to do so.”
The rural district includes parts of Saratoga and Warren counties and extends into the Adirondack Park. According to figures supplied by the district, in the 2017-18 school year Hadley-Luzerne enrolled 710 students and had 128 employees. The district budget totals $20.9 million, with $4.46 million going toward teacher salaries during the regular school year. Teachers received an additional $44,000 in 2017-18 for stipends and special duty pay, according to figures supplied by the school.
The district’s geographic isolation, one source said, contributes to the sense that Baker, who is also the district’s former high school principal, is not fully accountable to state oversight. The state Education Department said it wouldn’t comment on a specific school district, but cited the law requiring teachers and staff to be certified to ensure “the individual teacher’s training and demonstrated knowledge in a particular content area, and that their training is based on the standards developed for that content area.”
There are no laws against school boards hiring relatives of their members, but the New York State School Boards Association recommends that those individuals abstain from voting on a relative’s appointment.
According to board minutes, that’s not what happened in Hadley-Luzerne.
Eddie Joe Moulton’s wife, Megan Moulton, was hired as a part-time teaching assistant, first in the library and now doing attendance. In 2016-17, she earned $12,134. While Baker acknowledged hiring her, her appointment cannot be found in board minutes.
Baker said it’s a minimum-wage position and “it is hard to find people who want to do those jobs.”
For the “clerk of the works” vote, Duane Moulton said his brother abstained from voting. But board minutes show he was hired with a unanimous vote — including one from Eddie Joe Moulton.
At the time of the hiring, it was said to be subject to approval by the counsel. The district’s attorney, Kris Lanchantin, said she didn’t know if it had been finalized but “assumed” it had been.
Duane Moulton’s wife, Julia Moulton, was hired as a fifth-grade English language arts teacher — a subject in which she is certified — for the current school year for a salary of $46,369. (With an additional seventh-period assignment, she is paid $48,800.) She was appointed with another unanimous vote, minutes show.
Moulton’s other sister-in-law, Chrissandra Moulton, has worked in the district since 2008 — before Eddie Joe Moulton became board president — as a custodian, and in 2016-17 school year earned $27,107.
“I look to hire the best person for the job at the most reasonable price,” Baker said. “If they happen to have the last name Moulton, so be it.”
Eddie Joe Moulton did not respond to repeated attempts to reach him for comment.
Duane Moulton said his relations are the best candidates because “everyone knows our family” and they “step up to the plate.”
“We are on the fire department, we coach Little League,” said Duane Moulton, who served on the school board from 2010 to 2013. “You don’t understand how things work in the Adirondacks. You are trying to sensationalize this thing. My family is the most generous people, and we are ready to do the job. To say there is something wrong with it is nonsense.”
Board member Joseph Hanlon, who died May 8, told the Times Union in December that the district had no choice but to hire Duane Moulton as clerk of the works because his bid was the lowest. But the request for proposal issued for the job does not require the school to accept the lowest bid, only the bid that best fulfills the project’s requirements.
“We had three bids,” Hanlon said. “The other two were over $200,000. … Duane came in at $80,000. We have to take the lowest bid. The money we save can go to the kids.”
Besides, he added, “You’re not going to find people in this area that aren’t related.”
This month, Duane Moulton sought election to the seat left vacant by Hanlon, who was running for re-election. He lost his write-in bid: District results show that on May 15, Lia Braico was elected to Hanlon’s seat with 190 votes. (Despite his death, Hanlon got 80 votes, and Duane Moulton received 66.)
The partiality to the Moultons, sources familiar with the hiring said, led to Baker directing a district staff member to put Julia Moulton on the district’s health insurance a month before she started working at the district. The district employee refused to place her on insurance, calling the move illegal, but Baker overruled the staffer.
In an Aug. 10 email to the district’s health insurance consortium obtained by the Times Union, the employee complained about Baker’s demand and also alleged that Julia Moulton’s paperwork had been doctored.
The email noted that two other teachers hired at the same time did not get “the same preferential treatment.”
Baker said the start date for Julia Moulton’s health insurance was his prerogative because he sent her to a conference and she began work in her classroom 10 days before the school year began.
Baker said Julia Moulton “does a great job, an outstanding job.”
The prevalence of Moultons on the district’s payroll, Baker said, should not come as a surprise because Hadley and Lake Luzerne are small towns. The 2010 U.S. Census showed a combined population of 5,395.
“This kind of thing is not uncommon,” Baker said. “I’m the largest employer in the district. Many people here are related. It’s not just the Moultons. Remember, we are a small community, and I make the effort to hire locally because they have a vested interest in the school.”
While there is nothing illegal about a single family being heavily represented on a school district’s employment rolls, Jay Worona, deputy executive director and general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association, said the practice “doesn’t necessarily look right in the eyes of the public.”
The law, Worona said, is much more clear when it comes to hiring uncertified teachers. An uncertified candidate can only be hired if no certified teachers apply. But even then, uncertified teachers must meet two requirements: The district must obtain a waiver for the teacher from the local BOCES office, and the district must limit the teacher’s classroom time to five hours a week.
At the beginning of the school year, seven Hadley-Luzerne employees were leading classes or put in positions for which they were uncertified, a review of the state’s Certification Teacher Lookup database showed. A state Education Department spokesman confirmed the data are current.
Each district creates its own policy on hiring. Hadley-Luzerne’s policy notes that uncertified teachers, who are known as “incidental,” can be assigned after “extensive documented and recruitment efforts.” Lanchantin, the district’s attorney, confirmed that the district only publicly advertises its open positions on the On-Line Application System for educators, the statewide clearinghouse for education job openings that is managed by Putnam-Northern Westchester BOCES. Some were also posted internally and with the local BOCES.
But a Freedom of Information Law request filed with OLAS by the Times Union showed that the district advertised only three of the seven positions via OLAS — those for a social worker, a gym and health teacher, and a family and consumer science teacher.
Another FOIL request showed that only one teacher was granted a waiver: Susan Reardon, who is certified in pre-K to grade six and high school English, but teaches family and consumer science in the high school.
Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex BOCES Superintendent James Dexter said the waiver requests are made by superintendents after the district demonstrates it has made a “good-faith effort to find a certified candidate.”
The other employees — four teachers, one teaching assistant and one school counselor who works as a longtime substitute certified social worker — did not receive waivers. One of those teachers, Tyler Byrnes, is a certified gym teacher who also teaches health. His job was advertised through OLAS, and several sources confirmed that well-qualified applicants with the required dual certifications applied. After interviewing the candidates, the hiring committee did not recommend Byrnes, according to anonymous sources familiar with the hiring.
But Baker put Byrnes up for appointment anyway. “I don’t have to follow the committee’s recommendation,” he said in response to questions about Byrnes.
Shannon McLean, who is teaching special education in the high school but is certified only to teach elementary special education, is the daughter of Baker’s former secretary, who is deceased. McLean’s job was not advertised on OLAS, based on the documents provided to the Times Union. It was not determined, however, if the opening was posted internally or on the BOCES website, which the school did for the consumer and family science position.
Jonathan Granger, who is teaching music in the district without certification, was, according to sources, hired because Baker liked what he did with 2017’s spring high school musical, a staging of “Little Shop of Horrors.” He succeeded a tenured and certified music teacher who quit after being transferred to the elementary school. Based on a FOIL request from OLAS, the opening in the music department was not publicly advertised.
The Times Union reached out to several of the uncertified teachers via phone calls and email, but did not hear back from any of them.
The district’s attorney, however, sent the Times Union an email asking the newspaper to cease and desist all direct contact with the district.
“This applies to communication with administration and board members,” Lanchantin wrote. “While employees, of course, are free to speak with you, we direct that you NOT contact them during their work day or by school phone or email.”
Barry Fertel, an attorney who specializes in education law and has served on the school board in New Rochelle, said that a superintendent who doesn’t follow the state law could be stripped of his certification — but he has never seen that happen.
More likely, Fertel said, the superintendent risks being fired by the school board, which has ultimate oversight.
But the Hadley-Luzerne school board appears either uninformed or complacent about the lack of proper certifications. Minutes of their meetings show that Baker, who has a three-year contract paying an annual salary of $120,000, does not consistently disclose to his board if a teacher is certified in the area in which they are hired. Meeting minutes show that he does list certifications in appointment resolutions if the teacher being hired is properly certified.
Most of the uncertified teachers work at the high school, where Baker’s longtime colleague, Burgess Ovitt, is the principal. Baker said they have known each other since 1997, when they worked together in the Fort Edward Union Free School District, and that Ovitt “came highly recommended.”
Ovitt was hired as principal one month after Baker was named superintendent. It is unclear if the principal position was posted.
In an email responding to the Times Union, Ovitt said he and Baker “may or may not be friends.”
In either case, he defended Baker’s hiring practices, stating: “I know how hard it is to find certified teachers in certain subjects in rural schools. I entrust Mr. Baker has exhausted all possibilities and went through the proper channels to employ the teachers in question.”
In December, the school board’s Hanlon said he believed the complaints about Baker’s hiring practices are just a reaction to his efforts to “(make) the teachers finally do some work.”
“It’s all a bunch of malarkey,” Hanlon said last winter. “I have told Beecher that because of him, we are finally moving in the right direction. We might be moving like a turtle, but it’s in the right direction.”
[email protected] – 518-454-5445 – @wendyliberatore