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Issue of Destino seat on Falls School Board heads to decision

The controversy over whether Johnny G. Destino should be removed from the city School Board may be decided as early as next week, board President Russell J. Petrozzi said Sunday.

"I am confident we can work this out internally within the School Board. We met in a productive executive session, and everyone is cooperating. Our goal is to put this behind us," Petrozzi said.

Destino, who was among those attending the executive session, said that he was "still examining" his options and that "we hope to resolve this" possibly as early as this week.

Six of the nine board members filed a petition asking State Education Commissioner David M. Steiner to remove Destino from his seat as part of the fallout over the appointment of Maria A. Massaro as the school district's $120,000-a-year administrator for human resources.

Board members serve without pay.

Petrozzi, who is one of the six who filed the petition, said he and his colleagues have asked Steiner to put their petition "on hold" so they can try to work out a solution locally without any action by the commissioner. "We have a big capital construction project and a bond issue coming up," Petrozzi said, "and we don't need this distraction. Hopefully, we can resolve it next week."

If it can't be solved locally, it could take months for the state Education Department to make a decision, according to James C. Roscetti, a Niagara Falls attorney who was retained to represent the school district in the matter of Massaro's appointment.

The issue arose when Destino filed his own petition challenging the Oct. 28 appointment of Massaro to the administrative position. Massaro is the daughter of school district attorney Angelo Massaro.

The board members who sought Destino's removal contend that he acted improperly by contacting an employee of the school district while he was preparing his petition against Massaro's appointment. The board hired her by a vote of 7-2. Only Destino and board member Arthur L. Jocoy Jr. voted against the hiring.

Destino, who has a private law practice in Niagara Falls, is the newest member of the board. He raised the issue of nepotism in the school district during the campaign leading up to his election last May.

His petition to the state Education Department contended that the job specifications for the district's administrator for human resources were changed to favor Massaro and that she should be removed until a more complete search could be undertaken. The commissioner has turned down Destino's request that Massaro be dismissed immediately, ruling that she can remain in her job until a hearing is held -- possibly months from now.

Destino's petition argued that School Superintendent Cynthia A. Bianco acted beyond her authority in changing the job requirements to make Massaro eligible for hiring.

His petition also asks state education officials for a determination whether Massaro is ineligible for the job because she lacks state certification to be an administrator and a master's degree in the subject area. He said that the certification and the degree had been part of the job description before the superintendent changed it.

The district's official answer denies that Massaro "does not possess the qualifications to hold the New York State permanent School District Administrator certificate, but admit[s] that she does not currently hold one." It also denies that the minimum qualifications for the job were "substantially modified."

Bianco said, "I recommended [Massaro] as she was the best choice for the district. I stand by that decision. Given her credentials and experience, she is more than qualified for the job."

As matters stand now, Massaro will remain in her job until the state takes any action, and Destino will remain on the board until the status of the petition against him is decided.

In any case, Destino said, his appeal to dismiss Massaro "will proceed. My goal is to have the original petition heard. The petition for my removal is a separate issue, and there is no connection between the two."

e-mail: rbaldwin@buffnews.com

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