District employee filed a complaint against board trustee
It was business as usual at the Jan. 18 Jericho Union Free School District Board of Education meeting that took place inside the George A. Jackson Elementary School Auditorium. The board saw a presentation about the elementary school library, accepted a gift from a Jericho High School alumni and began discussing the 2024-2025 budget.
But the mood quickly shifted when Denise Nash, the district’s director of public information and community relations, stood before the board during public comment to address what she called misinformation spouted from who would soon be identified as Board of Education Trustee Sam Perlman.
“I’m not one to engage in a back and forth, but when a board member and a community member is giving false information, I feel the need to share facts,” Nash began.
Nash, according to an Investigation Report obtained by the Syosset Jericho Tribune, had filed a complaint with the district on Oct. 22, 2022 after an interaction with Perlman at the Oct. 20, 2022 Board of Education meeting. She alleges that he yelled at her in front of community members. She stated the interaction came after other inappropriate remarks from Perlman. For example, Perlman allegedly made a remark to her on June 15, 2021 while Nash prepared his iPad, ID card and passwords before the beginning of his term, stating “you better get that working. Don’t forget – I will be voting on your tenure.” He also allegedly asked Nash at a Sept. 14, 2022 PTA meeting if she was pregnant. She was not. He allegedly said he made the comment because her hair was darker than usual and that he thought she was dying her hair back to her normal color in preparation for getting pregnant.
Perlman denied to Ashley C. Pope, an independent investigator, that he engaged in discrimination or harassment with any constituents, including Board of Education members or district employees, with respect to Nash specifically. He denied yelling at her at the October Board of Education meeting and stated he does not recall asking Nash if she was pregnant.
Pope, in her report, stated that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that Perlman engaged in gender discrimination or sexual harassment against Nash. However, Pope did recommend a reiteration of policies concerning respectful communication and debate, discrimination, anti-harassment and sexual harassment; clarification of board member’s roles and responsibilities; review of policies on board governance; anger management and nondiscrimination training for Perlman; an apology from Perlman; a procedure of setting the Board of Education meeting agenda and asking fellow board members questions; and a written protocol to address complaints in reference to the Board of Education meeting technology.
The Jericho Union Free School District Board of Education wrote a memorandum to Perlman on Nov. 16, 2023 in an effort to point out problematic conduct to change his future behavior.
“That does not sound like there was no wrongdoing found, like a board member and community member suggested,” Nash said during her public comment. “At the December board meeting, a board member said the investigation was ‘14 months of wasted effort.’ Was it a wasted effort to investigate a claim that was brought by an employee against a board member? Should that investigation never have happened? Should that board member be able to act that way without an investigation? Also in December, this board member said that the investigation cost $60,000 and that money should have been spent in other ways. I do agree, and it should have been spent in other ways. But that money was spent because of this board member and his actions, not me, the victim, or the district, or the other board members.”
Nash then brought up the letter that was sent to Perlman from the Board of Education, providing copies of it to meeting attendees and summarizing points made in the letter, such as Perlman’s alleged history of inappropriate remarks towards Superintendent Henry Grishman, fellow board members, district attorney Christopher Powers, staff, students, parents and community members.
“Let’s stop victim blaming,” Nash concluded in her public comment. “Let’s stop re-writing the narrative to make this board member innocent when the report says otherwise. Please stick to the facts so that we don’t have to further waste everyone’s time correcting your misinformation.”
Her comment received a standing ovation from almost everyone in the auditorium.
“If she has a complaint, she has every right to bring it to the district and the board,” said trustee Jennifer Vartanov, who defended Perlman in the Investigation Report and often seems to side with Perlman during public meetings.
Vartanov believed it should be noted that there was no finding of discrimination.
“I think my quotes speak volumes,” Nash said. “If you believe that those actions are appropriate, that’s your opinion.”
Meeting audience member and former board trustee Ira Checkla asked Board of Education President Jill Citron from his auditorium seat if she could re-read the policy on public comment, which prohibits public discussion on matters relating to staff and students at which their reputation, privacy or right to due process, or those of others, could in some way be violated.
After Citron re-read the policy, Checkla asked “So when somebody says something you agree with, it’s okay for them to comment on somebody’s reputation?”
Powers explained that the Investigation Report and letter from the Board of Education referenced by Nash are available to the public via FOIL request, meaning Nash was within her rights to make the comment she made.
Who is Trustee Perlman?
Perlman first ran for the Board of Education in 2017, losing to Citron. Perlman told Pope, the investigator, that he’s lived in the district since 2011 and has three children currently attending Jericho schools and that he has professional experience in finance, accounting and overseeing budgets. He was elected to the Board of Education in 2021.
Perlman often goes back and forth with fellow board members, especially when it comes to policies. During a Board of Education meeting in May of 2022, Perlman, and Vartanov, expressed concern over the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Policy, stating that it should be more specific to Jericho. Perlman and Vartanov also expressed concern over a policy on facility use after Sen. Chuck Schumer used Jericho High School as a backdrop to announce funding for an FBI program that would prevent and detect false reports of shootings and bomb threats, stating that the Board of Education should have been notified. During the September 2022 Board of Education meeting, Perlman criticized a policy surrounding graduation participation for students with learning disabilities who would remain in the district until they were 21, stating that the Board of Education should be part of the decision deciding if a student could participate in the ceremony if they weren’t graduating.
The investigation into Perlman
Nash first began the process of filing a complaint against Perlman on Oct. 22, 2022 after an incident that took place at the Oct. 20, 2022 Board of Education meeting.
She said she was in the middle school library talking to Vartanov about the seating and nameplates of the board, which Nash was in the process of moving to the correct spot. Vartanov had emailed Nash earlier that day about the number of microphones available, and Nash explained that only three microphones could be used because any more could create a tremendous amount of feedback.
“As I was walking away from Mrs. Vartanov, Board Trustee Sam Perlman walked behind the board table and said ‘What, are you talking about the microphones?,” Nash explained in her initial email documenting her complaint. “Mrs. Vartanov said yes. He looked at me and said ‘This is unacceptable. Fix it now. I am so sick of your excuses. I said fix it now.” As he was saying that this he was pointing at me and intimidating me. I said ‘Are you speaking to me?’ And he said ‘Yes, who else would I be speaking to?’ I said “Are you being serious?’ And he said “Do I look like I am kidding? This is unacceptable and all you ever do is make excuses and I don’t want to hear you speak again.’ I told him he was making me feel uncomfortable. I got very emotional. I asked him to please stop speaking to me that way, and I was going to find my boss. I started to cry.”
Nash added that this happened in front of meeting attendees, which included parents, students and colleagues.
Because of this, Nash said she could not perform her duties since she was uncomfortable being in the same room as Perlman that evening.
The Board of Education appointed the law firm of Guercio & Guercio to conduct an extensive investigation into the allegations made by Nash.
Pope, the investigator, conducted several interviews, including with Nash, district staff, Vartanov, Citron, Perlman, and a redacted individual.
Pope stated that Nash’s account of the incident was credible and was supported by others, including a custodian. However, Vartanov told Pope that while Perlman sounded frustrated, he did not yell at her.
Nash also cited several other interactions with Perlman that she found to be inappropriate, including him asking her if she was pregnant and commenting on her tenure. Perlman told Pope that he realized the tenure comment was made in poor taste and wanted to apologize but was advised by an individual whose name has been redacted not to.
She also said she felt uncomfortable by Perlman’s attendance of a PTA meeting she was running (board members typically do not attend). Perlman told Pope he was asked by administrators, who he declined to name, to be there.
She added that Perlman’s conduct towards members of the public during the April Board of Education meeting was not appropriate, prompting email complaints from parents that were included in the Investigation Report.
“Ms. Vartanov feels Mr. Perlman’s delivery is different from that of others and there is room for improvement in that regard,” Pope wrote. “An example she gave is that he can go on too long and say the same thing multiple times. She stated that he says things under his breath at times and believes it is his way of letting off steam. She also explained that he addresses other board members by ‘Dr.’ or “Mr./Ms.’ She believes board members find it to be offensive, but he has said he does it to be more respectful and thinks it is more official, as does Ms. Vartanov. She opined that he can unintentionally get under other board members’ skin.”
Citron told Pope that she has never had someone be so antagonistic towards her as Perlman.
The Board of Education’s Letter to Perlman
In the letter obtained by the Syosset Jericho Tribune, the Board of Education stated that Perlman must adjust his behavior, specifically disruptive behavior, hostility towards colleagues, disparagement of women, self-reflection, open communication, professional development and commitment to change.
He is also prohibited from retaliating against any district employee, administrator, teacher, student, community member of trustee based on their cooperation in the investigation.
“If you fail to follow the advice in this memo, be advised that the board can take additional steps, including bringing proceedings to remove you as a trustee,” the letter read.
The letter stated that the incidents of improper behavior during public and executive sessions revolve largely around his tone, gestures and insulting language.
“We are concerned that because of the conduct mentioned here, the board may be perceived as dysfunctional and/or not suited to serve the community,” the letter read.
Adopting first readings of policies is not so easy for the Board of Education
After Nash’s public comment and a back-and-forth between audience member Checkla and the Board of Education regarding public comment policy and the results of the investigation, the Board of Education began to vote on the acceptance of the first readings regarding the code of ethics and best practices for school board members and code of civility. The board ended up voting in favor of accepting the first readings of slightly modified policies.
The policies can be found in the agenda packet.
What resulted was an almost hour-long argument between Perlman and fellow board members and attorney Powers.
Perlman brought up his concern about repeating sentiments in policies, such as making “a good faith effort to serve with integrity to the best of one’s ability.”
“I believe that’s already said earlier in this policy; I believe it’s said in a variety of places,” Perlman said. “And, as [Trustee Dr. Christopher Foresto] and [Vice President Dr. Divya Balachandar] pointed out at the last meeting, that’s part of the oath of office that we take.”
He then alleged that the board was just trying to create a longer policy manual in order to receive more state funding. Citron responded she didn’t mind the policy being repetitive when talking about ethics and best practices.
“When you repeat, it seems to be okay,” Perlman said. “Let’s go back to what we talked about last month with regard to the discussion about recusing yourself from votes when you’re taking money.”
He then opened up another discussion about a separate policy, stating that Dr. Foresto accused him of having a grudge against the Jericho Teacher’s Association because they didn’t endorse him during the election.
“I didn’t accuse you of anything,” Dr. Foresto said. “If you’re referring to the last meeting, I was simply making the point; if we’re going to imply that one may vote in a particular direction because they received some sort of funds from an individual or organization, my opinion is, you might conclude somebody would be conflicted if they saw a particular endorsement and did not receive it. I did not accuse you of ever having a grudge.”
Perlman then brought up last month’s discussion about the JTA creating campaign materials for Citron and Dr. Balanchandar.
Citron said while she didn’t approve the $100 spent by the JTA on campaign materials, she filed it because she was advised to by the district’s attorney, and Perlman accused that advisement of being a conflict of interest.
Powers, explained that there are filing responsibilities of candidates, and he will explain those responsibilities to them. “That’s not a conflict, sir,” Powers said.
“I’ve asked you for lots of advice as a board member and you told me you represent the board, you represent the district, you don’t represent me,” Perlman said. “I would love to get free legal advice when I need it.”
Citron then said she believed Powers provided Perlman with personal legal advice during the executive session.
“Are you referring to something that happened in executive session in a public session?” Perlman said.
Citron said it was a general statement and that she didn’t divulge confidential information.
Arguments continued, including over semantics regarding the definition of “loud language” and the wording of a policy: “Board members must understand that we do not always get our way.” The board ended up removing the policy from the Code of Civility because of its wording.
“[We’ve now] spent a cumulative 30 minutes, 40 minutes discussing policies relating to the board,” Perlman said. “We are not doing the district’s business.”
“I 100 percent agree,” Citron responded.
Perlman then told Citron that it was her leadership bringing them here.
Citron disagreed and Dr. Balachandar said that’s not fair.
“Just be nice,” Fran O’Connor, the president of Jericho Cares, said from the audience. “That’s it.”
Perlman said he’ll take her advice under advisement.
As the use of facilities came up again while the board voted on the remainder of school business, Superintendent Grishman called for the meeting to adjourn to executive session. The board voted in favor.