Decision No. 18,237
Application of KAREN WONTROBSKI-RICCIARDI for the removal of Matthew Gribbin and Michael Catalanotto as members of the Board of Education of the Smithtown Central School District.
Decision No. 18,237
(February 7, 2023)
Silverman and Associates, attorneys for respondents, Deanna L. Collins, Esq., of counsel
ROSA., Commissioner.--Petitioner seeks the removal of Matthew Gribbin (“respondent Gribbin”) and Michael Catalanotto (“respondent Catalanotto”) (collectively, “respondents”) as members of the Board of Education of the Smithtown Central School District (“board”). The application must be denied.
Petitioner and respondents are members of the board. At a board meeting on October 25, 2022, the board discussed an item recommending that five seventh and eighth grade students be allowed to play on high school varsity teams. Petitioner commented that the number of eligible students had increased as of late. She also expressed concern that these students may be taking opportunities away from older students. While acknowledging that the eligible middle school athletes “work[ed] hard” and were “very talented,” she requested that the board take a “closer look” at the process moving forward.
Respondent Catalanotto then asked to be heard. He indicated that one of the eligible seventh graders in the item was his child. He proceeded to deliver a lengthy complaint about petitioner, the relevant portions of which are reproduced below.
You have never once … demanded to see … APP test scores as you have my son today. You have never once demanded to summon the athletic director here to executive session to speak to them about approval of a seventh grader as you have today … Not only is that inappropriate in and of itself, but you’re talking about my son …
My son is exceptional, even if you don’t want to admit it …
Your intent is extremely, extremely obvious … you have never brought this stuff up before … but as soon as it’s my son that’s on the agenda, all of this stuff becomes an issue. And that’s because you don’t like me …
Anybody—anybody— … who uses a child to-to further a … vendetta against somebody is a horrible, horrible, person … (applause) ... And I thank God that we have enough people here to vote my son through … so I don’t have to go home tonight and tell my son … that he wasn’t through because somebody doesn’t like me.
Respondent Gribbin later commented that petitioner’s objection “was a thinly-veiled attack on somebody else’s children,” characterizing it as “horrible.” Respondent Gribbin continued:
You can’t justify what’s … been done … it’s pretty despicable … Going after somebody else’s child is about as low as it gets. I know what I heard; I know what I read … horrible.
This application ensued.
Petitioner argues that respondents’ comments were inappropriate and defamatory. She further argues that respondents’ comments violated board policy. She seeks their removal from office as well as the imposition of a reprimand and fine.
Respondents contend that the application must be dismissed, among other grounds, for lack of personal service. Respondents further contend that the Commissioner lacks the ability to issue a reprimand or impose a fine. On the merits, respondents contend that their comments did not constitute a willful violation of law or neglect of duty within the meaning of Education Law § 306.
The application must be denied for improper service. Section 275.8 (a) of the Commissioner’s regulations requires that the petition be personally served upon each named respondent. If a named respondent cannot be found upon diligent search, the petition may be served by delivering and leaving it at the respondent's residence with some person of suitable age and discretion, or as otherwise directed by the Commissioner (8 NYCRR 275.8 [a]).
Petitioner’s affidavit of service reveals that the petition was not personally served on either respondent. Rather, on November 17, 2022, the petition was delivered to respondents’ spouses. Although section 275.8 (a) of the Commissioner’s regulations permits service of a petition on a person of suitable age and discretion at the respondent’s residence when the respondent cannot be found, there is no evidence that the process server made any prior attempts to effect service before leaving the petition with others. One attempt to serve respondents at their homes does not constitute a diligent effort to serve them personally (Appeal of Cooke, et al., 54 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 16,759; Appeal of Boni, 41 id. 214, Decision No. 14,666; Matter of Boni v Mills, Sup Ct, Albany County, Special Term (Bradley, J.); Judgment dismissed petition to review; Feb. 27, 2003). As such, petitioner has failed to prove that she conducted a “diligent search” before resorting to serving papers on persons of suitable age and discretion (Appeal of Houdek, 47 Ed Dept Rep 415, Decision 15,740; Appeal of the Lawrence Teachers’ Association, 39 id. 119, Decision No. 14,190). Accordingly, the application must be denied for failure to effectuate personal service.
Although the application must be denied on procedural grounds, I am compelled to comment on the lack of civility displayed by respondents. Respondents’ characterization of petitioner as, for example, a “horrible, horrible, person” (respondent Catalanotto) and “pretty despicable” (respondent Gribbin) demonstrate a lack of maturity and self-control. Even assuming that petitioner’s public comment was motivated by personal animus toward respondent Catalanotto—which is far from apparent based on the evidence in the record—it would not excuse respondents’ actions. I admonish each respondent “to comport himself in the future in a manner befitting a holder of public office” (Matter of the Application of the Board of Educ. of the Dansville Cent. School Dist., et al., 22 Ed Dept Rep 240, Decision No. 10,947).
In light of this determination, it is unnecessary to address the parties’ remaining contentions.
THE APPLICATION IS DENIED.
END OF FILE
 A video recording of this meeting, uploaded by the board, is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UpQm9QVmdBQ&t=4318s (last accessed Jan. 27, 2023). Petitioner’s comments begin slightly after the 1 hour and 9 minute mark.
 See 8 NYCRR 135.4(c)(7)(ii)(a)(4). “The Athletic Placement Process (APP) is a program for evaluating students who want to participate in sports at higher or lower levels, as approved by the Board of Regents” (New York State Educ. Dept., “Athletic Placement Process for Interschool Athletic Programs” [Feb. 2015, rev. Dec. 2017], available at https://www.p12.nysed.gov/sss/documents/AthleticPlacementProcess12-11-17FINALRevised.pdf [last accessed Jan. 30, 2023]).
 As respondents note, the Commissioner lacks the authority to issue a formal reprimand or impose a fine in an appeal pursuant to Education Law § 310 (Appeal of Nappi, 57 Ed Dept Rep, Decision No. 17,300).