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Achramovitch placed on administrative leave; Harris Beach terminated as Hamburg School District’s lawyers

Hamburg School District Superintendent Steven A. Achramovitch is being placed on paid administrative leave, until his designated retirement date of Aug. 10, following the school board’s decision to approve the matter in a resolution at last Tuesday’s (July 2) special meeting.

The meeting featured a standing room only crowd and several media outlets on hand. General differences of opinion were voiced between various district officials, as Tuesday marked the first session for new board members Laura Heeter, David Yoviene and Catherine Schrauth Forcucci. Other contentious matters at the meeting included the board’s decision to terminate legal representation of the Harris Beach Law Firm in all matters, thus ending the district’s overall public involvement in the ongoing lawsuit regarding the taping of a private executive session in September 2010, and additionally hiring the firm Tresmond Law, James D Tresmond Esq. to a one-year term as district counsel at a flat rate cost of $110,000.

Achramovitch’s resignation for retirement had been announced at a special meeting held on Wednesday, June 26.

However, the board passed a resolution by 4-3 vote Tuesday to place the superintendent on administrative leave from July 3 through Aug. 9, at which time Achramovitch’s retirement is slated to begin. As part of the motion, the school chief must immediately submit all school property to the district, including a cellular phone, flash drives and other items. The district’s network administrator is also advised per regulations to disable Achramovitch’s login and e-mail accounts from Hamburg’s computers.

The departing superintendent said following the meeting that he had an inkling heading into Tuesday that the actions taken could and would occur. Achramovitch described the resolution as some district officials’ way of expressing their desire to move in a new direction.

“I was expecting this,” Achramovitch said. “I’m looking forward to retirement and relaxing.”

The school chief additionally stated his satisfaction with Harris Beach’s legal service to the district, citing exceptional advice given to administrators in the area of labor relations, special education and other designations.

Board Vice President Thomas F. Flynn III was vocal in his various disagreements with certain board members. He asked on what grounds Achramovitch was being placed on administrative leave, to which Board Member Sally Stephenson replied, “To move in a positive direction.” Stephenson, Schrauth Forcucci, Yoviene and Board Member Holly Balaya voted in favor of the resolution. Flynn, Heeter and Board Member Patricia Brunner-Collins voted against the action.

Replacing Achramovitch, even on an interim or assistant basis, remains a major question mark for district officials. Some confusion was brought about during the meeting as to the position parameters of the actual firm James D. Tresmond, who was in attendance Tuesday. It was noted that in addition to Tresmond’s legal background, the Hamburg resident also possessed the distinction of being a certified school administrator for more than 20 years in the Buffalo Public Schools. Tresmond did serve for 10 years as a high school principal, but stated with certainty that his duties in Hamburg would not extend beyond that of a legal counsel.

“It is not my job title,” Tresmond said in regards to administrative duties.

Advising the school board on matters relating to legality, as well as contacting state officials regarding the current lack of superintendent presence in Hamburg, were some immediate duties described by Tresmond, whose law firm is located at the Liberty Building in downtown Buffalo. Tresmond later added that he’s long had an appreciation for the Hamburg School District, with two of his sons attending Hamburg High.

“I love Hamburg, and I would never leave (residency),” said Tresmond, who additionally stated that he is planning to address job duties as legal counsel beginning immediately, on Wednesday, July 3. He did not foresee Hamburg being in violation of any regulations regarding its lack of even a temporary superintendent, stating however that a search for even an interim chief will take some time.

The motion to hire Tresmond’s law firm was passed by a board vote of 5-2, with Flynn and Brunner-Collins casting dissenting “No” votes. Flynn described the presentation of the legal counsel to the board as rash in nature, as he noted the process typically includes a collaborative effort to check a potential hire’s references, recommendations and other background material.

“I’m reading this for the first time,” Flynn said of his review of the Tresmond resume and contract during opening stages of the meeting. “It appears someone did this search outside of the board. (The hiring proposal) seems irregular with no prior board knowledge….I understand trying to save money, but it should not be an individual board member going out (and searching).”

The board vice president added that Harris Beach’s legal rates to the district have not increased for the past four years, stating, “They’ve provided (Hamburg) with good legal advice.”

Stephenson cited a major savings in district monies by switching to Tresmond’s firm, estimating $80,000 in such funds being saved in comparison to the counsel of Harris Beach, which was charging $150 per hour. It was also noted that Tresmond will oversee all fiscal and auditing duties. Stephenson said it is her and district officials’ expectation that a full and suitable search for a permanent superintendent will commence.

“We need a fresh start, and this is it,” Stephenson said regarding Tresmond’s firm being hired.

Yoviene described Tresmond’s legal background as excellent, and Heeter stated that research revealed the hiring of the firm to be cost effective.

Balaya stated the legal costs associated with Harris Beach had reached a skyrocketed level, adding that the firm had given the district some “very bad” legal advice. She cited what she described as an “un-winnable” case that Harris Beach was involved that included a subpoena being served to Google in the hunt for an anonymous blogger of a local website. FOIL requests, Balaya added, came with a cost to Harris Beach at $40,000.

Additionally, Balaya said, the decision the board made in December 2010 regarding the taping of the aforementioned executive session included district officials giving a “blank check” to Harris Beach. Civil action commenced in June 2012, brought about on behalf of Achramovitch, Brunner-Collins, former board members Matthew Dils and Diane Reynolds, former board President Joan Calkins, as well as Greg Wichlacz and Thomas Bagley.

The decision to terminate Harris Beach as the district’s legal counsel and the accompanying lawsuit came by a board vote of 5-1, with Brunner-Collins abstaining and Flynn opposing the matter.
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