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School superintendent backs down; fires controversial hire

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN, (Week of December 13, 2012)
Photo of Fran Adams (left) and Suzanne D'Agresta.

School Superintendent Fran Adams belatedly decided to terminate Stuart Singer, the controversial new personnel chief for Indian River County schools that she hired in a manner that circumvented state pension laws, after his first week on the job.

In an e-mail Sunday night, Adams told the School Board that she would bring the contract employing Singer at $9,500 a month to them for cancellation, and would begin a national search to fill the job in January. 

According to an e-mail from Suzanne D’Agresta, the school district’s part time attorney, Adams made the decision Friday because she “determined that (Singer’s) approach to the work will not fit well with the direction and approach (Adams) wishes to take.”

D’Agresta said that the decision was “based on his style dealing with issues,” and said nothing about the unethical nature of the hiring arrangement or complaints from school board members who had worked with him in Osceola County.

Problems with the hiring of Singer were reported in Vero Beach 32963 more than three weeks ago when it became evident that while serving full-time as personnel director for Indian River County schools, he would actually be a full-time employee of D’Agresta’s law firm. 

The odd employment arrangement – where the school system paid the law firm instead of Singer – was arranged to circumvent a state law that said public school system retirees who participated in the Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP) could not go back to work for a school system for six months. The law was passed to prevent double dipping by government employees.

But Singer, 67, went immediately back to work after retiring as a school system administrator in Osceola County at the end of November by having his Indian River County school system salary laundered through the D’Agresta law firm – an unethical arrangement that gained the attention of state Rep. Mike Fasano, who sponsored the law to stop double dipping when he was a state senator.

Outraged by the arrangement worked out by Singer, D’Agresta and Adams, which was approved by four of five school board members, Fasano’s relief at hearing the superintendent was now rescinding the Singer contract was equally boisterous: “Outstanding!” he said. “The superintendent and board have finally come to their senses!”

Fasano said he received numerous calls from parents of school children in Indian River County who said they read about the hiring arrangement that circumvented state law in Vero Beach 32963 and were distressed over it.

He advised them to let school board members and the superintendent know how they felt.

“I’m pleased that both the superintendent and school board realized what went down was wrong and changed their minds,” said Fasano.

Singer’s hiring not only flouted the spirit of the law, but also raised numerous questions about conflicts of interest because, while he worked for the Indian River School District, he did so through a private law firm contract. This raised concerns over whom he answered to and what part of his actions as a public/private employee would be part of the public record.

Four out of five school board members from Osceola County, where Singer had been the personnel director for the school system for about seven years before recently being shifted to a technical job, raised questions about his ability to be fair with teachers – especially those supporting the union.

“It was an intolerable situation that could not stand, “ said Fasano.

Neither Adams, D’Agresta nor Singer was available Monday to talk to a Vero Beach 32963 reporter about the termination of Singer’s contract.

School board member Matt McCain, who opposed the hiring arrangement from the beginning, said: “Good! I’m happy this has worked out as I hoped it would.”

In her e-mail to the superintendent, D’Agresta told Adams that she respected her decision to rescind the contract.  But, D’Agresta said, she regretted that she had no other employee she could offer with Singer’s “expertise.”