Hamburg School Board member Holly Balaya said during a special meeting Tuesday (July 17) that if anyone feels they have been wronged, they are well within their rights to bring about a lawsuit. But she and her mother, new Hamburg School Board member Sally Stephenson, believe legal fees should come out of the individuals pockets, not the taxpayers.
Stephenson informed the board that late Tuesday afternoon, she filed misconduct charges against two attorney’s from Harris Beach, the law firm that represents the school district.
“Actually, I’m paying to have myself sued,” Stephenson said.
Stephenson, who called the district Monday to call for a special meeting, introduced a resolution that stated “Whereas Holly Balaya, who has been a School Board member since July of 2011, emphatically states that she has not taken part in any vote of the Hamburg Central School District Board of Education to authorize tax dollars be allocated to file a civil lawsuit on behalf of the Hamburg Central School District, the Superintendent of Schools Steven Achramovitch, Dr. Joan Calkins, Mrs. Patricia Brunner-Collins, Mr. Matthew Dils, Mr. Greg Wichlacz, Mr. Casey Neyman, Mrs. Diane Reynolds and Mr. Thomas Bagley opposes this action, and does not support the action or the use of tax payer dollars and school district funds to pursue this frivolous lawsuit.”
Dils and Reynolds were not in attendance for Tuesday’s meeting.
When members of the board arrived at the special meeting, they were unaware of why it was called.
“We do not have an agenda today,” said Calkins, the school board president.
As part of the resolution, it stated that “under the leadership of the current Superintendent of Schools Mr. Steven Achramovitch has allocated approximately $411,222 between September 2010 and July 10, 2012 to the Harris Beach Law Firm.”
“Is this figure accurate?” Balaya asked.
“This information is not something we are prepared to discuss,” Calkins said.
Balaya noted she wants it clear that she has not participated in any lawsuits.
Stephenson and Balaya believe those bringing a suit against Stephenson are doing so for “personal financial gain.”
Balaya read Article 77 of the New York Education law dealing with costs, expenses and damages a district can charge in certain cases.
“No where does this say we can use taxpayers dollars.... for financial gain,” Balaya said.
This is a charge that Calkins vehemently denied. She said the reason a suit was brought against Stephenson is because the board is confident that Stephenson was responsible for illegally taping an executive session on Sept. 21, 2010 and that they have evidence that can back that claim.
Calkins added that the board believes they need to protect rights they feel were violated when the tapes were discovered.
Stephenson denied that claim, stating that she received a copy of the tape in the mail and turned it over to the Village of Hamburg Police Department and Mayor Thomas Moses.
According to Balaya, one of the aspects of this that has upset her is that she said a few months ago, teachers were begged to take a pay freeze in order to save as many jobs as possible.
“We are spending taxpayers dollars,” she said.
She said on July 10, the superintendent allocated $100,000 to Harris Beach.
“Why do we need to allocate that kind of money?” Balaya asked.
Achramovitch said that money was budgeted under legal expenses.
“I think we could better use these taxpayer dollars and put it back in the classroom,” Balaya said.
She does not deny anyone has a right to bring about a lawsuit, but does not want to see her “children’s education money” used in these cases.
Stephenson noted that in December of 2010, when she brought open meetings violations charges against the board, she paid the $330 out of her own pocket and never sought reimbursement from the school when the case was decided in court.
Calkins reiterated that the reason for the suit involving Stephenson was because the board believes she is responsible for illegally taping an executive session.
“That is the grievance. That is the issue,” Calkins said.
“Each person has a right to file a civil suit if you feel you’ve been wronged by anybody,” Balaya said, but added she is against the “use of taxpayer dollars to commence a civil action.”
Stephenson said she had not stepped inside of the school for two years when the taping was done and she was upset about accusations she said were made against her and her family.
The resolution brought forth by Stephenson and seconded by Balaya also indicated that Achramovitch will be reported to the New York State Education Department, the New York State Attorney General and the New York State Comptroller’s Office “for misuse of taxpayers dollars and school district funds for personal financial gain.”
“You can not use public dollars for your own personal profit,” Stephenson said. “The only thing that’s going to stop me is embalming fluid.”
According to Stephenson, until recently, she has never been sued or filed a lawsuit. But she believes Achramovitch is misusing public funds in this case.
“The abuse of power is spending other people’s money because they think they are above the law,” Stephenson said.
When asked if he knew of any other lawsuits involving the use of taxpayer money, the superintendent said he was not aware of any, but this case has also brought a lot of unprecedented actions because the superintendent added that an executive session has never been illegally taped by someone they believe was not allowed to be present in the room.
When it came time to make a decision on whether to vote, withdraw or table the resolution, a vote was ultimately held with Stephenson and Balaya voting in favor, Flynn and Calkins voting against and Brunner-Collins abstaining.