Thursday, October 21, 2021

Residents protest suspension of school superintendent

Dr. Benjamin Edmondson
At least four members of the Romulus Community Schools Board of Education disagree with several outspoken voters who elected them.

During a second contentious meeting last week, the four board members voted to continue the administrative leave of Superintendent Dr. Benjamin Edmondson despite the protests of several audience members including residents, students, a teachers’ union representative and district employees who packed the meeting.   

Edmonson was placed on paid administrative leave two weeks ago pending a “financial audit” of business practices and credit card charges. That decision was approved by the same 4-3 vote of the board members. Board President Debi Pyles confirmed at the meeting that Edmonson “is not a target of the investigation,” prompting more audience questions about the reasons for placing him on leave. 

Shortly after being hired by the district in August of 2020, Edmonson reported financial discrepancies and practices to the board. The investigation into his concerns was halted when a district employee filed a Title IX discrimination complaint against him in, what he claims, was retaliation.

Both the district Business Manager Steven Baker Jr. and the Human Resources Manager Margaret Hazlett have recently resigned their positions. In her letter of resignation, Hazlett said, “I can no longer in good conscience follow the leadership of the Board of Education.”  Baker said the final straw for him was “the order to begin pulling credit card statements and documents for the board's consultant to review instead of assisting us with the audit that is currently ongoing.”  

That financial consultant, Mike Dixon, who has been working in the district for several weeks, also drew criticism during the meeting last week from Sarah Carter, the president of the Romulus Education Association, the union which represents district teachers. She said paying the consultant $120 an hour or $1500 a day was “absolutely unacceptable.”

“I question your ethics and integrity,” Carter told the board members, and also expressed concern about the recent hiring of several employees with interim contracts. 

The pay rate for the consultants was also criticized by Board Treasurer Ursula Wester. Later in the meeting, Wester said the district had become a “laughingstock” throughout the area.

School board member Pete Bergeron questioned the legality of a closed door, four-hour meeting which included the investigator from law firm Clark Hill PLC, the auditor and Interim Superintendent Sean McNatt which took place the day following Edmonson's leave. Bergeron, who left the board table and spoke from the podium as a district citizen, questioned the legality of having the independent investigator and the interim superintendent in place without discussion or approval by the entire board.  Bergeron demanded a legal opinion from the district attorney as to the legality of that meeting. He said he had obtained a legal opinion which found the meeting in violation of the Open Meetings Act. 

Romulus resident Rita Hampton told the board and audience that she had submitted paperwork that day to recall Pyles. 

“Ms Pyles, you've got to go. You're damaging this district. It has nothing to do with whether I like you or not.” She told the audience and board members that the last straw was the meeting during which Edmondson was placed on leave which she said was an “embarrassment.” Hampton said she was seeking signatures on the recall petition.

The motion to return Edmonson to his job failed by a 4-3 vote of the board.