As Culinary Probe Proceeds, School Leaders Are Divided

By CHRIS BURRELL

More than a month after regional high school teacher Peter J. Koines was arrested by Oak Bluffs police and charged with stealing $11,000 worth of school-owned equipment and funds, Island school officials are now seriously divided over how they should be responding.

Monday morning, Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash told Martha's Vineyard Regional High School principal Peg Regan she could not speak to the press about how the school is dealing with the case against the culinary arts teacher, Mr. Koines.

Regional high school committee chairman Gail Palacios of Edgartown, meanwhile, told the Gazette she believed Mrs. Regan acted prematurely last June when she recommended firing Mr. Koines.

And Mr. Cash has decided not to proceed with Mrs. Regan's recommendation in June that vocational director Kevin Carr be demoted.

The atmosphere of disagreement among school leaders comes less than three weeks before the opening of a new high school year on Sept. 3. Mr. Koines is scheduled for a hearing with the superintendent on Monday to determine whether he will continue teaching here come September.

Last week, regional high school committee member Susan Parker of Chilmark telephoned Ms. Palacios asking for a meeting to discuss the school reaction to the Koines case, but never heard back from the board chairman.

"I just wanted us and the public to know as much as possible about the process as we could in order to allay concerns," Mrs. Parker said this week. "The more information from the administration, the better for everybody. There are privacy issues for the employee, but the process should not be kept under wraps."

Mr. Cash strongly disagreed.

"The case is at my level of hearing, and I'm the only one who should be talking about it," he said, explaining his decision to instruct the principal not to talk to the press. "It's not a gag order, but proper protocol for talking about personnel matters."

Yesterday, about an hour after Oak Bluffs police agreed to release to the Gazette the results of an audit of school finances connected with the culinary arts department, Mr. Cash persuaded Oak Bluffs police officer George Fisher to withhold the document.

The superintendent said he believed that publicizing the audit of high school finances could impede his own inquiry and hearing on Monday and prejudice a criminal jury in the future.

Mr. Cash also declined to release the results of Mr. Carr's last two annual job reviews, saying that his school's legal counsel advised him that it could violate the administrator's privacy.

Ms. Palacios, the school board chairman, has also backed a tight-lipped response in the aftermath of the Koines arrest, arguing that the school needs to proceed cautiously and avoid the threat of lawsuits from employees either fired or demoted.

"We're not going to bring an issue of personnel to the committee," she said. "The high school committee can get information at any time by calling the superintendent directly."

Ms. Palacios added, "The principal only recommended that [Mr. Koines] be dismissed. I think that was an error in judgment. She acted prematurely. This guy hadn't had his hearings."

Mrs. Regan wrote a letter to Mr. Koines in June, informing him he was fired because he allegedly operated a private business out of the vocational department kitchen and used school funds to purchase pie shells and fillings for his own pie-selling business, which he runs at the farmers' market in West Tisbury.

In early June, a member of a school accreditation team informed Mrs. Regan of missing equipment in the culinary department. She acted quickly to investigate the allegations and then decided to dismiss Mr. Koines and demote Mr. Carr, who is in charge of equipment and fiscal oversight in the vocational school.

Mr. Cash said that in early July, he met with Mrs. Regan and Mr. Carr to discuss the charges against Mr. Koines.

At the meeting last month, Mr. Carr told the principal and superintendent that he had given vocational staff a "stern verbal warning two years ago saying that if you use any aspect of the school to run a private business, that it's just cause for dismissal," Mr. Cash said yesterday.

Mr. Cash said he didn't believe that a specific incident had prompted the verbal warning, but he said that vocational staff have verified the warning from Mr. Carr.

Mr. Cash said that while the vocational director is not the subject of any formal school inquiry, he plans to meet with high school business manager Margaret Serpa, Mrs. Regan, Mr. Carr and other administrators at the start of the school year.

"Everyone needs to know how we intend to deal with breaches like this in the future," he said.

Meanwhile, back on the criminal case against Mr. Koines, Oak Bluffs police are now looking much more closely at the stream of money that was supposed to come into the high school when the culinary students catered private functions.

"The information from invoices, the school office and an auditor's report cause me to believe that the children haven't received full credit for the amount of work they did at these events," said Officer Fisher, who is leading the police investigation.

"Payments for these events was supposed to go directly to the high school and not to Mr. Koines," he added. "But there were events where payment was made directly to Mr. Koines and we don't see where there's been a deposit back to the school account."

Longtime school committee member Tim Dobel of Oak Bluffs said he expects his board to look closely at the money trails once the criminal procedure against Mr. Koines is over. "We need to be clear on what has happened and then we'll look at it and make a judgment," he said. "For now, under education reform [laws], personnel issues are the purview of the principal and superintendent."