Attorneys for the Central High School District have filed a suit against every member of District 24’s Board of Education, as well as the board itself, and forced the superintendent to appear in court on June 30 — a tactic that Richard Zuckerman, the attorney for District 24, said was unjustified.
“There are times when it is appropriate and even necessary to sue someone individually,” Zuckerman said. “This is not one of those times.” He added that individuals named in a lawsuit have to check a box acknowledging the legal action when they try to buy a car or a house.
The Central High School District hired a special counsel in May and, more recently, authorized the lawsuit in response to District 24’s refusal to pay more than what its officials deem to be a fair share of the tax burden — dealing a blow to the otherwise agreeable relationships among Valley Stream school districts since the start of the Green Acres Mall tax-break controversy last year.
Bill Heidenreich, superintendent of the high school district, said that suing individuals is a normal strategy for a lawsuit. “When you’re involved in litigation, you sue people as a body and individually,” he said. “That’s how that works.”
The suit that the high school district submitted to Nassau County Supreme Court claims that District 24 owes the high school district $2 million. At the June 30 hearing, Justice Jack Libert told District 24 officials that they had until July 13 — after the Herald went to press — to prepare an official response.
That response would cite state and local laws as well as previous court decisions that support District 24’s view that the district does not owe the high school district the money. Once that is submitted, the high school district will have a chance to submit a rebuttal to District 24’s response. Then the judge can either make a decision in the case, based on those documents, or call the attorneys back to hear arguments. Officials of both districts say that a decision could be made by next month.
According to Zuckerman, District 24 was given two weeks to prepare its response, because district officials had little advance notification of the hearing. “What happened was that [on June 29 … the attorneys for the high school district] emailed me at like two o’clock in the afternoon to say, ‘Just to let you know, we’re going to be suing you in court tomorrow,” Zuckerman recounted at District 24’s Board of Education meeting on July 6. “‘Come to court tomorrow. We’re not showing you our legal papers, and show up in front of a judge, because we’re going to ask that the judge make District 24 pay us the money right now.”
On May 9, the high school district Board of Education appointed a special counsel from the Hauppauge-based Ingerman Smith LLP, at an hourly cost of $250, to represent the district. The outside counsel is necessary, Heidenreich said, because a Farmingdale law firm, Guercio & Guercio LLP, represents the Central High School District as well as districts 13 and 30.
The $2 million in dispute is the result of the districts’ differing interpretations of what constitutes taxable property under state education law — namely, whether or not Industrial Development Agency-owned properties can be included in that category.
Of particular concern in Valley Stream is a New York state law that requires elementary school districts to collect taxes for centralized high school districts based on the elementary districts’ taxable property. District 24 has argued that the high school district has the authority to include payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, properties, in its evaluation of how much to tax each component elementary district. The high school district has disputed District 24’s claim.
That money is currently sitting in an escrow account, and will remain there for the duration of the lawsuit, according to John Maier, the District 24 Board of Education president. The districts’ next court date will be scheduled after the remaining paperwork is filed.