Emotions Run High at Two Island Meetings:
Regional School Committee

By CHRIS BURRELL

See also: Vineyard Community Services

Regional high school leaders hoped for closure and called for decorum, but their meeting Monday night came like a head-on collision with nearly 100 Islanders, many of them angry and hurt over the case of the teacher who stole thousands of dollars in supplies and cash from the school.

In the library at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, the crowd filled all available chairs, sat on tables, stood amidst the bookshelves.

The meeting was supposed to bring resolution to the case, but many called for a deeper financial investigation and accused school leaders of "whitewashing" the affair.

Others pleaded for compassion for Peter Koines, saying that he has suffered enough by losing his job and that the high school needs to move on.

The meeting marked the first time the school committee has taken up the issue in public session since the scandal over the former culinary arts teacher made news last July.

Mr. Koines and his wife sat front row center. But the bulk of the criticism flew right over their heads and landed squarely on Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash.

"The reason that feelings are running high is that all of us seem to feel that Mr. Cash is not taking this seriously," said Cynthia Walsh of West Tisbury. "Every single person I've talked to has said there's something wrong with Dr. Cash's attitude on this ... It's a criminal act, and he's not stating this anywhere."

"On a strictly moral level, I don't feel like you saw anything wrong," said Kendra Yale, also of West Tisbury, addressing the superintendent directly. "That's what troubles me."

That theme was echoed throughout the discussion, which lasted well over two hours.

"Mr. Cash is hiding something. He's protecting Mr. Koines," said Fella Cecilio of Oak Bluffs.

"The superintendent has never come out to make it clear," said Charles Harff of Oak Bluffs. "Integrity is not a matter of degree, it's right or wrong."

Mr. Harff charged that Mr. Cash was "quibbling" when he made statements last week that Mr. Koines had not stolen as much money as police thought and that he had donated and solicited all kinds of supplies for the culinary arts department.

"It doesn't matter if he raised money or stole just $5,000. Any theft is intolerable and cannot be allowed," said Mr. Harff. "We are interested in our students and teaching them right and wrong. I am very disappointed."

School committee chairman Tim Dobel quickly came to the superintendent's defense, saying, "I've worked with Kriner Cash for nine years, and he is all about integrity." But his comment was greeted with audible laughter in the room.

Mr. Cash then shot back, attacking press coverage of the Koines case and arguing that the way he handled the matter offered a lesson in fairness to Island students and teachers.

"We absolutely affirm that this is not to be tolerated," said the superintendent. But he pointed out that state laws dealing with tenured teachers and the advice of the school's labor counsel required him to balance that with the rights of employees.

He said that the press "pilloried and vilified (Mr. Koines) week after week." He said inaccurate press reports had caused Islanders to draw untrue "inferences" about his character.

When Mr. Cash began to criticize the headline of an Oct. 17 story in the Gazette about Island youths and knives, some people in the crowd started heckling him. "Let's not change the subject," shouted one woman.

More than once throughout the meeting, Mr. Dobel had to caution speakers to act civilly.

"Mr. Cecilio, honor the decorum," Mr. Dobel demanded after the Tisbury resident claimed that teachers were not speaking up about the Koines case for fear of retaliation from administrators.

"I believe it's nonsense," Mr. Dobel said to Mr. Cecilio. "Do not make slanderous comments."

Mr. Dobel had hoped that the introductory remarks by Mr. Cash, high school principal Peg Regan, the school's labor lawyer and the school's auditor might quell the discontent.

"We are going to try to answer some questions before they (come up) so we can short-circuit some of this stuff," said Mr. Dobel.

The focal point of the agenda was a joint report read by Mr. Cash and then Mrs. Regan. The superintendent outlined the details of the resolution with Mr. Koines, but that document still has not been made public.

Mr. Cash was emphatic that he had shepherded the Koines case to a good outcome.

"One penny misspent or one paper clip of misuse must be accounted for," he said at the outset of his remarks. "A sensitive balance must be struck between the rights of the taxpayers and the rights of employees," he added.

He told the crowd he has previously handled 76 personnel matters in the school system, guided not only by state laws but also by concern for the impact on an employee's family and children.

"No teacher can ever be fired on the spot, according to Massachusetts law," said Mr. Cash. "A process must be adhered to or we run the risk of a decision being overturned by an arbitrator ... You need to prove all the facts to dismiss a teacher, and this process takes time."

The superintendent pointed out that he protected the taxpayers' investment by ensuring that Mr. Koines was ordered to pay back $20,000 to the schools. Half of that money was already paid back on Sept. 25. The other half is due by February 2005.

Mr. Cash explained that Mr. Koines's 1,400 hours of community service will be valued at a rate of $15 an hour, creating a total benefit to the schools and Island towns of $21,000.

As part of a resolution agreement struck last week, Mr. Koines will not receive any health insurance benefits from the school. The school's labor counsel, Sean Sweeney, said the issue of his pension is not for the school committee to decide and that the state teachers' retirement board could actually strip Mr. Koines of his pension.

"We believe we have served your interests as well as the employee's," said Mr. Cash.

High school principal Peg Regan said very little at the meeting, explaining simply that she has asked department heads to create a full inventory of all items in the school and that all fundraising events are now recorded on a calendar so that the flow of money can be tracked.

But for some people, the action plans and the explanations offered no comfort.

"I think it's essential that the school committee consider an independent audit," said Tisbury finance committee member Don Amaral. "I really think some things have to be put to rest."

Fred Condon of Edgartown hammered at the school's auditor, Chris Rogers, asking him why misuse of funds in the culinary arts department was not uncovered earlier.

Mr. Rogers said that audits look at the whole school, not individual departments, but Mr. Condon lashed back, criticizing the auditor for advising school leaders not to conduct a deeper, so-called "fraud audit" because the cost may exceed the level of fraud detected.

"He says it's too much to do an audit, but he may have been the reason or the cause of the problem," said Mr. Condon before he picked up his coat and left the room.

Applause followed those comments.

Little anger or criticism was leveled against Mr. Koines. "This man stole a lot for a lot of years. He's a thief," said a man from Oak Bluffs. "My whole (problem) is his attitude. What he did was wrong and a lesson to kids."

But he, too, quickly steered his dissatisfaction back to Mr. Cash. "It sounds like you're protecting this guy," he said to the superintendent.

Dick Sherman of Edgartown said, "I think this thing is a whitewash, a grand example of the good ole' boy stuff that goes on on this Island." Mr. Sherman began to assail the lack of fairness in the Island justice system, mentioning that his 19-year-old son was killed by a drunk driver and how difficult it is to convict drunk drivers on the Vineyard.

Mr. Dobel cut short his comments. "You're impugning the integrity of this entire board," he said.

Anxious to move on with the rest of the agenda, Mr. Dobel said he would entertain only a couple more comments, but the crowd was in no mood to be silenced. Grumbles were heard.

School committee member Robert Tankard of Tisbury, sensing the mood, delivered a moving speech that marked one of two turning points in the emotional meeting.

Mr. Tankard, the former West Tisbury School principal, began telling a story about his mother "holding court" when a family dispute arose. The point, he said, was that everybody's feelings on the issue were heard.

"Tonight, there are people here. This agenda doesn't mean a hill of beans. That can wait. People, you're gonna be heard, one way or another, pro or con," he said. "We do have to move forward, but we cannot move forward if we're not heard."

Again, applause burst forth; there was, indeed, more to be heard.

Two culinary students spoke up, asking for answers. Ashley Hathaway said, "Everyone is so concerned about us and our healing, but who came to talk to us?"

Nicole Welty raised her hand and said, "In my sophomore year after 9/11, they cancelled our trip [to Europe]. I would like to know where that money went."

Mr. Dobel suggested that Miss Welty make an appointment with Mrs. Regan to have her questions answered.

School leaders clearly tried to defuse the anger in the room. Mr. Dobel attempted to assure people, saying, "I do not believe any sort of whitewash is going on. We couldn't have this meeting legally until now. All you need is one labor issue to go awry, and you're looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars."

As the meeting rolled on, committee members and others shifted a different kind of attention back onto Mr. Koines, appealing for Islanders to show him sympathy and compassion.

"We need to take care of each other when times are tough," said school committee Gail Palacios of Edgartown. "We need to give a person a way back. It's time for us to get on with managing the school."

"What do we want to do, take him out and shoot him?" asked Les Baynes, school committee member from Edgartown.

"He's a great guy. This is kicking someone who's down," said one woman. "Be grateful your mistakes weren't on the front page of the paper for months."

The second turning point came late in the discussion - almost two hours after it began - when Doug Debettencourt, a high school math teacher and teachers' union representative, stood up.

He had been sitting next to Mr. Koines for the duration. Emotion choked his voice. "I think he's been in pain long enough," he said, looking down at Mr. Koines. "He's not getting off easy. He's lost his job ... There was not an intent over 20 years to say, ‘I'll work at the high school and rip them off...'. He's been through a living hell."

The comments quieted the room. Mr. Koines's wife, Debra, was weeping, and someone handed her some tissues. Dorothy Bangs, a retired Tisbury schoolteacher, put words to the mood that had fallen over the library.

"Doug, we needed this. Peter blew it, and he's hurting. My heart goes out to his family. Peg has got a hold of things. What more can we ask of ourselves that we want to do to get even. If Peg's on the right track, can we stand behind her? Can we all just leave and say it's been a terrible mess?" said Mrs. Bangs.

Her parting shot, though, was aimed again at Mr. Cash. "I don't think the top administrator has done very much to help us."

Apologies were about all that was left.

"My anger is gone," said the man from Oak Bluffs who had called Mr. Koines a thief. But he also added that he felt the superintendent and school committee had made light of Mr. Koines's crime.

"I apologize," said Mr. Cash. "I had not intended to give you that impression.

The tide had shifted.

Tricia Bergeron of Oak Bluffs said she believed the superintendent had shown Mr. Koines respect.

Mr. Koines then stood up. "I came here to hear what you had to say," he said. "I regret anything I've done to offend anybody, and I'm truly sorry."

And with that, the discussion was over, and the mass of people, weary from the emotion, slowly found their way outside and into the rainy night.