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The long-awaited hearing on charges against Gail M. Stephens, the suspended Lewiston-Porter schools superintendent, will begin at 6 p.m. today, School Board President Mac I. Barnett said Tuesday.

He said the hearing in the Middle School cafeteria, 4093 Creek Road, would be open to the public unless Dr. Stephens changes her mind and decides that it should be held in private.

"When we say it is open to the public, we mean that the public may attend the hearing; but there will be no public participation, the public cannot ask questions -- it is not a public hearing in the sense that the public can be heard," Barnett explained.

"The Board of Education will conduct the hearing, and it will be confined to the charges against Dr. Stephens," Barnett said.

Dr. Stephens and her lawyer, Dennis G. O'Hara of Syracuse, have said repeatedly that they wanted the charges to be aired publicly. They have added, however, that they do not believe that the Board of Education is the proper forum for the hearing.

Since the hearing is to be conducted by the School Board instead of by an impartial hearing officer, it was unclear Tuesday whether Dr. Stephens would agree to have it done in public. "I will take the advice of my attorney," she said. O'Hara could not be reached to comment on what advice he had given her.

"The last thing I heard was that it was to be a public hearing," Barnett said.

There is a chance that an effort to mediate the dispute between the board and the suspended superintendent could be successful, and that the hearing will become unnecessary, the board president added. "I am not giving up on mediation. There is a chance for mediation right up to the time of the hearing," he said.

The hearing had been scheduled earlier, but was postponed until today to give a mediator time to try to arrange a compromise between the parties. Despite Barnett's comment, it was obvious that the mediation attempt so far has been unsuccessful.

Dr. Stephens is seeking reinstatement to her $61,200-a-year position with full back pay and benefits. The School Board, which dismissed her last fall, has resisted efforts to put her back to work and has refused to pay the back salary and benefits.

The board's charges include allegations that the superintendent failed to maintain school buildings properly and failed to work well with board members. Dr. Stephens has responded with a $10 million lawsuit charging five members of the board with conspiracy to ruin her career.

Each side has denied the other's allegations.

The board met privately Tuesday in an "executive session to discuss personnel," Barnett said. He would not say whether the private meeting dealt with Dr. Stephens' situation, but it appeared that board members were preparing for today's scheduled hearing.

Meanwhile, a petition to remove some members from the Board of Education is pending before State Education Commissioner Thomas Sobol. The commissioner's staff said it was unable to report on the status of that petition Tuesday.

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