Gina Genti — a Malverne mother who served as a Board of Education trustee for four years, until she chose not to run in the recent election — filed a petition to the New York State Supreme Court on May 17, asking the court to review actions taken against her by the board after an investigation of her conduct.
The investigation was initiated last November by the board’s attorney, Ingerman Smith, at the behest of the board.
Genti, 48, told the Herald that she was first shunned by fellow members, and then investigated by Smith because she asked too many probing questions of the board. She remains a member of the board until her term is up in September, but her participation in board activities has been sharply curtailed.
Starting in 2010, Genti said, she questioned the appointment of another trustee’s daughter to the board by Superintendent Dr. James Hunderfund; a proposed extension of the superintendent’s salary to the allowable $225,000 limit; and the tax cap levy in the district’s budget. She was accused of “harassing” other board members, and Smith’s investigation confirmed that charge.
Genti denies the harassment claims, describing Smith’s report as “one-sided,” and maintains that she simply asked questions that needed to be answered, exercising her right to seek information as a school board member.
She added that she strove to improve the Malverne district by directly communicating with residents and staff after she was elected in 2009, by investigating board decisions and publicizing issues through local and social media, including the Facebook page “I Love Malverne But Want More From Its Schools.”
“When you live in a school district that has placed in the … highest tax tier in Nassau County, but in the lowest quartile of academic performance, you can tell there is a disconnect that needs to be addressed,” Genti said, adding, “My questions were mainly about financial aspects, and the residents who elected me wanted those answers.”
Her actions, however, prompted the investigation. Its results will not be made public. Genti said that the board prohibited her from seeing the documentation of the investigation, denied her requests for information from school personnel and excluded her participation at the board meeting in March at which board members accepted Smith’s report.
“You can’t take away a public officer’s right to vote,” Genti said. “I’m only one vote. I’m not going to change the outcome — though had I been part of the process, we probably wouldn’t be where we are today.”
According to Genti, the board had approved policies in 2010 that restricted members from discussing its agenda with the media. In addition, the board granted only two of the 14 Freedom of Information Law requests she submitted to gain access to what she described as public information.
She said that school district staff members made several complaints about her conduct, accusing her of discrimination, harassment and “creating an environment of fear and anxiety.”
“I was basically fulfilling my duties, my fiduciary responsibility to represent the public and get answers, but I couldn’t get them,” Genti said. “Those questions were asked for very specific reasons. If I frightened them, I don’t know what to say — I’m sorry. I apologize, but these are questions that need to be asked.”
Genti’s court petition described the board’s resolution in accepting Smith’s findings as a violation of the Open Meetings Law and the Public Officers Law. She asked the Supreme Court to review the board’s consent to Smith’s findings, along with what she claims is a “violation of her administrative rights by fellow members.” If granted, the petition would set aside the board’s decision, and restore all of her duties on the board.
“There were no state or federal laws violated, there were some board policies that they said I violated — I don’t know what they are because I was never able to see the findings — and I think the conclusion was that the investigator found my behavior troublesome,” Genti said. “I would say that he’s probably right, but all for the right reasons. I was elected to represent the taxpayer and the student, and that’s what I was doing at every turn.”
Neither Genti’s attorney nor any members of the Board of Education commented on her petition.
Before her term ends later this month, Genti said, she hopes not only that the Supreme Court will overturn the board’s actions, but that Malverne administrators will reform the way they deal with board members and the public.
“You can’t bully a board member to be quiet,” she concluded.