A top Manhasset school official on Tuesday urged her own Board of Education not to oust Superintendent Vincent Butera as she claimed “bad actors” had thrust the district’s leader into a sexual-harassment scandal.
Rosemary Johnson, the deputy superintendent for business and operations, issued an impassioned defense of Butera at an extraordinary school board meeting where four other people stuck up for the embattled superintendent, who went on leave in May after he was found to have violated the district’s sexual-harassment guidelines.
Johnson rose from her seat next to Acting Superintendent Gaurav Passi to speak as a 29-year Manhasset resident during the meeting’s public-comment period, calling Butera an educational visionary with an unblemished career. She then argued that a personnel change had led to Butera’s sexual-harassment scandal.
“The result of this inexplicable action with questionable timing was, in my view, that the complaint, and the nature of the investigator’s findings with respect thereto, were twisted completely out of proportion,” Johnson said. “I cannot discount the deliberate actions of several bad actors, with thoughts of retribution for decisions made, and with intent to do Dr. Butera and the district harm. I believe they have succeeded in their mal intent.”
“Yes, during his tenure, Dr. Butera has had to make difficult decisions, including personnel decisions,” she said. “I believe that two of these decisions triggered certain events that contribute to where we find ourselves today.”
Johnson did not provide further details of who the alleged bad actors were or specific evidence for her claim that personnel decisions sparked the scandal. When questioned on specifics, Butera redirected Blank Slate Media’s inquiry to Johnson.
In September 2020, a Shelter Rock Elementary School teacher filed a complaint alleging the school chief made her feel uncomfortable after hugging her twice in school and frequently visiting her classroom to “just stand in the back and stare,” according to NBC News. Both incidents were described as “creepy.”
After that filing, the district hired the law office of Shaw, Perelson, May & Lambert to independently investigate the allegations, according to reports. Two months later, the firm reportedly concluded Butera had violated the school’s sexual harassment policy.
“There is no dispute that these events occurred,” Johnson said. “There is, however, a dispute regarding Dr. Butera’s intent versus the perception of the complainant. The board dealt with the complaint, issued a letter to the complainant, later circulated by unknown parties, stated its conclusion. As the board stated previously, it took appropriate action in the context of the nature of the complaint, which did not include termination.”
Blank Slate Media tried to obtain a document outlining the law firm’s findings through a public-records request in May, but Johnson declined to release it, citing the district’s attorney-client privilege and saying the record’s disclosure would “result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
Before it was leaked to other media outlets that same month, the independent counsel’s sexual harassment investigation was not public. Johnson argued that the school board’s previous decision to keep the finding’s conclusion private and not fire Butera was the right one.
“Therefore, I ask you to reinstate Dr. Butera as superintendent and work with him to restore and repair his reputation,” Johnson said. “Any other outcome would be an injustice unworthy of Manhasset. And to those bad actors, and you know who you are, may God help you.”
Going further than calling for his reinstatement, Johnson praised Butera as an exemplary superintendent.
“I know Dr. Butera to be a humble, kind, caring and thoughtful human being and superintendent,” Johnson said. “He is honest, and he is self-aware. He is an extraordinary leader, the best I have ever worked with in my plus-40-year career.”
Butera affirmed he did not coordinate with Johnson before she made remarks to the board.
“I am grateful and appreciative of her support as well as the support of others who spoke at the meeting,” Butera said in a statement to Blank Slate Media. “People who know me know that I always treat everyone with dignity and respect.”
But the independent counsel’s findings were not the only allegation of questionable behavior Butera has faced.
In September 2020, James P. Duffy — the husband of Jean Kendall, Manhasset’s former assistant superintendent for human resources — wrote a letter to Aitken discussing his wife’s “extremely troubling” encounters with Butera. He later posted his letter on Twitter.
One instance details Duffy’s account of a dance event where the cocktail hour entertainment featured “a woman in a skintight bodysuit that left virtually nothing to the imagination.”
“She performed all sorts of contortions many of which were highly suggestive in a sexual nature,” Duffy said. “After a while, Butera said to my wife, ‘can you do that?’ indicating the woman on the pedestal. My wife and I were appalled by this question, and my wife immediately responded that she was offended by it.”
Duffy also recalled how Butera sent Kendall and other central office staff — including two other women — a “highly offensive and extremely objectionable” video involving “a scantily clothed male dancer who was gyrating.”
— James P. Duffy, III (@jpduffy3) September 23, 2020
“My wife and one of the other of the women who received it discussed the video and both agreed that the video was objectionable and offensive,” Duffy said.
Although Duffy fell short of accusing Butera of violating sexual harassment rules, the conclusion of his letter suggested that the board of education should take “significant corrective action.”
“If the Superintendent can do things of this nature, anybody in the district can do likewise without fear of discipline or consequence,” Duffy said. “It is a shame that district counsel could not see this and pursue the matter as requested. This amounts to willful disregard in my opinion.”
But Butera said the investigator did not find evidence that shored up those allegations.
“The investigator’s response to the school board concerning the allegations made by Dr. Kendall found that none of the allegations were supported by credible evidence,” Butera said in a statement to Blank Slate Media.
Johnson further praised Butera’s efforts to “recraft” the school district’s mission and vision, saying he fostered “an environment of inclusivity, integrity, honesty, empathy, compassion, wisdom and decision making, and perseverance in the face of adversity.”
“Dr. Butera initiated the redesign of the district’s learning spaces to enhance student engagement and collaboration and better support all learning styles,” Johnson said. “Dr. Butera’s early laser focus on the social and emotional wellbeing of our students was cutting edge, which earned Manhasset and Dr. Butera the recognition as being the model for New York State.”
The board of education declined to comment on any updates to Butera’s employment status with the district. It’s unclear whether he will return for the upcoming school year, which starts on Sept. 1.
Board trustees and senior district administrators declined Blank Slate Media’s request for an interview.
Also occurring at the Tuesday evening meeting was a reaffirmation of the district’s sexual harassment policies, which outline a range of disciplinary actions against employees from a warning to termination. The vote was unanimous in favor.