A continuous lawsuit that involves Hamburg Central School District officials and their pending case against various individuals who are part of an online blog, a suit that has included a current board member, will carry on, despite the efforts Tuesday (May 14) of persons who tried to sway board members into dropping the lawsuit immediately.
An action item resolution was brought to the table during the school board meeting by Board Member Holly Balaya, a measure that asked that the lawsuit be dropped in an attempt to prevent further district spending of funds on the case, which involves the law firm Harris Beach LLP representing the district. However, board members voted 3-2 against the resolution, as Balaya and Board Member Sally Stephenson voted in favor of the item, while Board President Dr. Joan G. Calkins, Board Vice President Thomas F. Flynn III and Board Member Matthew Dils voted against the measure. The rejection of the resolution brought various outcries of displeasure from the audience, as several individuals in attendance, as well as Balaya, noted the inability of the district to afford such a continuing lawsuit.
District Superintendent Steven A. Achramovitch stated that costs associated to the lawsuit have so far totaled slightly more than $10,000 for the district. When asked the time at which the Hamburg School Board approved moving forward with such a lawsuit, the superintendent answered that it is his belief that such action occurred at a public meeting in December 2010. It was also noted by Achramovitch that the highest rate per hour that Harris Beach charges, in the case involving the district, is $210, not the $500 per hour that other individuals had believed was the rate that the district was footing.
David Yoviene, who is running for school board on May 21, spoke critically of the lawsuit, demanding again Tuesday that district officials drop such legal action. Yoviene also asked district officials why a law firm as “expensive” as Harris Beach was selected, rather than a more local, cheaper firm. The board hopeful also described the Hamburg board as dysfunctional, noting, as he described, as the typical, divided board of 3-2 on several issues. Calkins, however, noted later in the meeting that recent data indicates a 93-percent ratio of unanimous board-voted approval of items.
It was stated that the origin of the lawsuit stemmed from an illegally taped portion of a private executive session from Sept. 21, 2010 being released, with subsequent police and legal action pursuing the contents and participating individuals of an online blog that dealt with issues related to the district, as well as material circulated from the aforementioned private session. Stephenson is listed as being part of the individuals (to go along with her daughter, Lyndsey Stephenson, and teacher Martha Kavanagh) who are being litigated against by the district. However, the board member stated that February 2012 depositions determined that she was guilty of no wrongdoing. Stephenson was critical of the district’s handling of the matter.
“You found nothing. We gave testimonies. So, why, a year and a half later, are you going after people?” Stephenson asked Achramovitch. “You have managed this district with attorneys, and we can’t afford this. It’s been a witch hunt.”
District residents Ken Kubik and Robert Johnstun, who each noted their receiving of subpoenas related to the lawsuit, also spoke Tuesday during public comment session in regards to their First Amendment rights as part of information posted on the Hamburg Educational Ethics blog. Kubik stated that anonymous blog posts are covered under First Amendment rights, adding that an attorney has been obtained to combat the district’s attempts to obtain blog participants’ E-mail addresses and other information items.
Johnstun, additionally, noted that a letter issued through Harris Beach as part of the suit included a demanding of (blog) information removal, to go along with a “threatening of a serving of papers” if the participants’ user information was found. It was added that finding such information could be sought by litigating parties by seeking such items through Google. Johnstun on Tuesday asked district officials, as he had done at the May 7 budget hearing, to drop the aforementioned lawsuit.
Balaya stated that she understands the district’s concern with keeping matters held in executive session private, as well as the emphasis of abiding by the district’s Code of Conduct. The board member added, however, that legal costs have escalated to a too-high level regarding the matter.
“My issue is over the amount of money it’s taken and the hardship it’s brought (to the board),” said an impassioned Balaya. “I just feel (the litigating suit) is turning out to be a fishing expedition…It’s getting to the point to where it’s going to (cost too much in legal fees).”
Flynn indicated that he is in favor of furthering any action that would save district taxpayers money. The board vice president stated, though, that the importance of keeping items private that had emerged in executive session cannot be minimalized.
“When laws are broken, people need to be held responsible,” said Flynn. “There should be an expectation of matters (in executive session) being held private, and (related material from the private session) should not be put on the Internet.”
Other resolution items Tuesday that were also voted down by 3-2 board margins included proposals to firstly, refer to the district’s transportation committee, Fisher Bus Services and the Hamburg Central Teachers Association the idea of extending the teacher/student contact time under the elementary setting by approximately three hours and 20 minutes per week, which would be one month more in education time per year; and secondly, a proposal to set a limit of $5,000 for the transfer of school district funds from one account to another without prior school board approval to the superintendent; with the prior suggested amount for such transfers being stated as $35,000.
In each instance, Stephenson and Balaya voted in favor of the measures, while Calkins, Flynn and Dils voted against the items. Calkins noted that it’s her belief as part of the elementary school day extension proposal that the matter is associated with HCTA contract negotiations. Flynn stated, in regards to the proposal for limiting fund transfers to $5,000, that such low allocated amounts would represent micromanaging, with the likelihood of hindering administrators from performing day-to-day duties in an adequate manner.