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Hamburg School District officials’ resignations called for at grassroots meeting

HAMBURG — A charged meeting held by Hamburg School District community members on Oct. 17 produced pleas for eliminating long-standing district disharmony. One suggestion asked for all seven Hamburg Central School Board members to hand in their resignations.

The meeting was held inside the Grange Building at The Fairgrounds in Hamburg. Speakers offered various solutions in the stated hope of producing a productive administrative future.

District residents Edward Piazza and Daniel Chiacchia were two of those who addressed the public.

Additionally, school and local government officials attended the meeting, including Hamburg Town Supervisor Steven Walters; Town Board Member Amy Ziegler; Hamburg Village Mayor Thomas Moses Sr.; School Board President David Yoviene and school board members Holly Balaya, Laura Heeter, Catherine Schrauth Forcucci, Patricia Brunner-Collins and Thomas Flynn III.

Chiacchia outlined a sequence of events that dated back to early 2009. He also spoke about the release of what he called an illegally taped portion of a private executive session from Sept. 21, 2010, with subsequent police and legal action’s pursuing the contents.

Board Vice President Sally Stephenson was listed as one of three individuals (along with her daughter, Lindsey Stephenson, and a district teacher) who were being litigated against by the district in the suit.

This lawsuit, along with the district’s former law firm, Harris Beach, were dropped as a district-funded entity this past July. Chiacchia said that Lindsey Stephenson had previously worked in the district in 2009, before losing her position in May 2010.

Chiacchia said that timeline information included “an onslaught” of Freedom of Information Law requests made by the aforementioned district teacher, in regard to Stephenson’s job termination, to which he said the district was forced to use “thousands” in legal fees, to respond.

Various grievances, lawsuits to remove school officials and defamation claims were said to have ensued, causing legal fees to be spent.

Chiacchia also cited various verbal altercations and taped conversations that involved related parties, as well as “questionable campaign tactics” involving oncoming school board officials. In July, the school board voted to end the longstanding district-involved lawsuit regarding the taped executive session, as well as to dismiss Harris Beach as Hamburg’s law firm.

Chiacchia said that the motive behind these actions came from the possibility of litigation against the aforementioned individuals in the suit. He said that plaintiffs were stated as having remained on the suit in a privately (not district) directed manner, and added that Harris Beach has agreed to continue to direct the suit, free of charge.

“They were getting real close to finding out who taped [the session,]” Chiacchia said. “Eventually, [it will be found out] who did this. If people are involved, they’ve given sworn testimony, and they could be facing perjury charges.”

During a July meeting to dismiss Harris Beach as the district’s law firm, school officials voted to approve James D. Tresmond Esq. as the district’s new firm, on a one-year contract valued at $110,000, despite questions and contention among some board members, regarding the matter.

Chiacchia described Tresmond as a “very nice man,” but said that the firm lacks litigation experience. Piazza has asked board members several times to provide an answer about how the district came to hire Tresmond. Piazza said that he has yet to receive an explanation.

“If you want to prevent litigation [against the district], you should hire a litigator,” said Chiacchia.

The attorney added that the board can and should re-vote the hiring of Tresmond’s firm, saying that one board member should make the resolution to reexamine the attorney search. He said that the aforementioned contract could become null-and-void.

Chiacchia said that he felt Schrauth Forcucci should step down and also cited non-civil behavior in which he said the board member had entered the administration building and acted in an “unruly manner,” before Hamburg police were called and Schrauth Forcucci was removed.

“Do us all a favor and step down,” Chiacchia said, about Schrauth Forcucci, who was elected to the board last May, along with Heeter and Yoviene.

Heeter cited a need to clarify her role on the board, while explaining her interpretation of the attorney search. Heeter described the process of hiring Tresmond as “severely flawed.”

“One thing I regret was not running as an independent, like I did the year before,” Heeter said. “I compromised my beliefs and got caught in a tangled web. My eyes are open. I’m not beholden to anybody [in a campaign]. I’m privy to facts and it’s changed my perspective.

“My second regret is the way our attorney was hired,” added Heeter, who is a district parent. “It was despicable. I listened to other people. You all deserve better. I know now that I’m here for the right reason, which is serving the students. If I felt I could not make a difference [in a student-driven approach], I’d step down tonight.”

Yoviene said that the focus of the local community should be to move forward, while not looking back at the tumult that has weighed down the district.

The school board president cited Hamburg’s rank of 10th academically in Western New York and 32nd in New York state, adding, “Not bad for a district in turmoil.”

Yoviene said that the district is moving forward in selecting a superintendent search consultant. He said that Dr. Vincent Coppolla, a longtime search consultant in WNY Educational Service – including a recent stint in the Frontier School District as search consultant and interim superintendent – will be selected to perform superintendent search duties in Hamburg.

“What we’re doing tonight is not going to help,” Yoviene said, about statements made at the community meeting. “This is not solutions; this is a witch hunt. It’s two warring factions. Our priorities are being hijacked. [The aforementioned turmoil] happened long before I got here. We must work through this. This is not a battleground; it’s a school district. It’s very hard to remove an elected government official. There was an election May 21, and people voted. Let’s push the restart button on the district.”

Piazza said that Yoviene’s sentiments were an attempt to direct people away from broken parts of the district, adding, “We have to fix it. Someone’s got to say, ‘Cut the garbage loose.’”

Moses said that he was pleased to see such a large crowd present at the meeting, adding that he hopes pride is restored in the district.

“We’ve got to talk about [issues] and fix it,” the mayor said. “I’m an alumnus of Hamburg and I’m proud of it. I’m not going to be here forever, but kids will be. I don’t want people to put their houses up for sale here. The only way we can [fix problems] is to do it through the people.”

Piazza said that the community/grassroots-oriented faction in Hamburg started as an informal gathering at a playground shelter, developed into a subsequent house meeting and, most recently, has evolved into a formal community meeting at Erie 1 Boards of Cooperative Educational Services.

The district parent and meeting moderator said that the grassroots effort has no political motive or funding.

Various teachers and parents spoke about a lack of administrative cohesion in the district, and several directed their words toward the aforementioned teacher who was litigated against, in the suit stemming from the taped executive session.

One special education teacher said that a lack of priorities exists financially in the district. “We’re buying kids shoes, boots and coats to meet the basic necessities, and yet [higher district] money is being spent on nonsense,” said the mother of Orchard Park students. “I say, what is wrong with everybody? For me, as a parent, [the spending] is horrible.”

Boston Valley Principal James Martinez said that school employees’ most important duty is to protect children from harm, as well as deflect rumors regarding members of the school community.

Chiacchia initially suggested that Stephenson and the aforementioned teacher resign from their positions.

District resident Robert Johnstun said that the clean slate that many said they desire could be better obtained by having all seven board members step down.

The teacher said that she is “not quitting her job.” Chiacchia suggested that all board members could resign, with a subsequent special election held.

“Maybe that’s the solution,” Chiacchia said to Yoviene, “due to a lack of confidence in the board for a couple of years now.”

An audience member contended that the current situation facing the board could have been avoided if more of the community had attended the annual meet the candidates night held prior the May 21 election.

Balaya’s and Flynn’s board seats will be up for election this coming May.

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