UPPER TOWNSHIP — Who knew what and when? But most importantly, why did the Ocean City School District privately investigate certain members of the Upper Township Board of Education and administration during its investigation of former Ocean City Athletic Director Christine Lentz?
Those questions will be at the heart of an investigation authorized by the Upper Township school board at its Monday meeting, according to a resolution read aloud by Solicitor Will Donio.
“This is no way a reflection on the high school administrator nor the staff. We do know our kids go there and receive a quality education, but this is their leadership,” board President Michele Barbieri said after the unanimous vote.
Ocean City Superintendent Kathleen Taylor and board President Joe Clark did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday. Ocean City board Solicitor Mike Stanton sent a statement via email Tuesday afternoon calling the allegations false.
“The Ocean City Board of Education was dismayed to learn of false accusations made in public last night by and on behalf of the Upper Township Board of Education. To state it simply, these accusations are false. The sworn testimony about the employment investigation, referenced by the Upper Township Board of Education in its public statement, provides no support for these irresponsible claims. The Upper Township Board of Education should retract its resolution and consider this matter closed and behind us so we can move forward together, for the good of both of our communities,” Stanton wrote.
Ocean City’s use of a computer forensic company to investigate Superintendent Vincent Palmieri and board members Barbieri and Fran Newman, who sits as an Upper Township representative on the Ocean City school board, came to light in the first three days of Lentz’s trial in October, Donio said.
Lentz, of Upper Township, was acquitted earlier this month after being charged with cyber crimes and official misconduct in 2015 related to allegations she hacked the Ocean City superintendent’s email to gain an advantage on contract negotiations. In addition to teaching at Ocean City for more than 30 years, where she also served as an assistant principal, Lentz is a former member of the Upper Township Board of Education, serving from 2008 to 2012.
Donio said the investigation will look into who authorized the private investigation, when Ocean City board members knew about the investigation, what its purpose was and why the Upper Township board did not find out about the investigation until the trial.
Donio said they will also look into the cost of the investigation to Ocean City and township taxpayers.
The resolution invites both Taylor and Clark to the Dec. 18 Upper Township board meeting to explain. Donio said that only after a full investigation can the “healing process” begin.
If Taylor and Clark do not cooperate, the Upper school board will call for their immediate resignation, according to the resolution.
Donio said he has already requested the complete prosecutor’s file from the Lentz trial and has requested information from the Ocean City School District under the Open Public Records Act.
“We have been met with varying degrees of receptiveness about that,” he told the crowd Monday. “I can tell you that this board’s charge to me is ‘find out everything.’ And we want to hear from the individuals themselves.”
Upper Township has been involved in a sending relationship with Ocean City School District for many years, with the township paying a tuition for its students to attend Ocean City High School. There are three Upper Township Board of Education members who serve on the Ocean City Board of Education, but they have limited voting rights.
The relationship over the years has been “unnecessarily strained,” Donio said, with lawsuits and public spats over certain procedures, including voting rights, payment for students who are placed out of district and school choice.
Donio said he did not know whether anyone officially informed Ocean City of the board’s decision before Monday’s vote.
“It is my belief that they are well aware we have concerns about this, which are consistent with concerns we have directly relayed to them,” he said.
Responding to a question from former Upper school board member Steve Martinelli about why Ocean City would do this, Donio said according to testimony he has listened to from the trial, the action was related to “general leaks” of information about ongoing litigation to “information as mundane as a school closure day.”
“Why that would be a cause of concern and require a forensic investigation ... is hard to fathom,” Donio said.
The middle school library where the board meeting was held was crowded Monday, with many standing in the back of the room while the board first went into executive session before coming out to take the vote.
The resolution passed unanimously, with board member Bill Holmes abstaining due to a conflict. Board member Rob Evans was not present.
The vote was met with applause and support from residents who attended the meeting.
“I am so pleased that you’re not going to just sweep it under the rug,” said Virginia Mulford, a former employee at Ocean City schools. “We need to build the family again which has been destroyed. So thank you.”