Center Moriches superintendent to retire at end of year

Russell Stewart, the outspoken superintendent of Center Moriches schools, has announced he will retire from his $258,634-a-year job at the end of June, completing nine years in the post.

Joshua Foster, the school board president, said late Friday that trustees have hired a firm to help them search for Stewart’s replacement.

Stewart’s announcement was emailed Friday to employees of the 1,500-student system following a discussion with board members Thursday night.

The schools chief, in a phone message to Newsday, gave no reason for his decision to step down, and he did not return calls on Friday. Stewart, 54, has been an educator in New York since 1987, according to state records.

In the message, he said he took particular pride in the fact that, during his administration, Center Moriches doubled the percentage of students graduating with advanced Regents diplomas.

Such credentials show that students have completed advanced courses, such as geometry, beyond the minimum required to graduate.

In 2017, the latest year on record, 53.2 percent of the district’s graduates earned advanced diplomas, up from 27 percent in 2010. The Long Island regional average in 2017 was 56.4 percent, up from 30.9 percent in 2010.

“Personally, as a resident and a board member, I think he’ll be missed, ” said Darrell Iehle, who serves on the district’s five-member school board.

Iehle acknowledged that Stewart’s administration has been controversial at times, adding, “It comes with the territory.”

The board’s vice president, Robyn Rayburn, declined to comment, as did another trustee, George Maxwell.

In February, after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Stewart was one of the first superintendents on the Island to publicly air the possibility of hiring armed guards for his district’s schools.

Stewart’s most controversial move came in 2013, when he appointed a former health and physical education teacher from the Commack district as principal of Center Moriches Middle School. The appointee, Melissa Bates, had just completed a year as Stewart’s confidential assistant.

Stewart, who taught in the Commack system and was high school principal there before getting the superintendent’s job in Center Moriches, said his appointee had completed a one-year administrative internship. But a group of Center Moriches parents contended publicly that Stewart’s choice for the middle school job was inexperienced and petitioned unsuccessfully for her removal.

One of those parents, Sandra Unger, who has since moved to North Carolina, responded to Stewart’s announced retirement on Friday, saying of her former school district, “Hopefully, they can move on and have a more pleasant educational experience like the one I’m having down here.”

Middle school principal Melissa Reggio, the former confidential assistant who now uses her married name, praised the superintendent on Friday, describing him as “a phenomenal, hands-on leader for our school district who cared deeply for our schools and the community at large.”

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