James P. Mazgajewski was appointed superintendent of the Cheektowaga-Sloan School District on a Friday.
The following Monday, the Erie 1 BOCES superintendent told him one of the board members had already called, asking how to get rid of him.
Mazgajewski, or Mr. Maz for short, reflected on the rocky start recently as he talked about stepping down after three decades.
His first reorganization meeting as superintendent of the district – which had a $750,000 deficit and was under investigation by the state Education Department – was one for the record books. One trustee was in the hospital with a heart attack; the fractured board’s remaining members split, 3-3, and could not agree on appointing a president and vice president.
“They literally hated each other,” he said of the two factions.
After several votes that went nowhere, one faction stood up and left. The new superintendent ran down the hall and suggested they have an executive session. Inside the closed session, the 32-year-old superintendent was brutally honest, a trait he would exhibit over the next 30 years.
“I said, ‘You look like a bunch of idiots, and you’re making me look like one as well.’ I said, ‘You can’t do this,’ ” he recalled.
They followed his advice, made the noncontroversial appointments and waited for the return of the seventh member for the others. It took about five years for the district to calm down and board members to stop cursing and fighting at meetings, he said.
Thirty years later, he has decided to retire from the district of about 1,600 students. Woodrow Wilson Elementary School Principal Andrea L. Galenski was named acting superintendent.
Mazgajewski (pronounced Mahz-guy-EFF-skee) was born and brought up in Sloan, and attended St. Josaphat’s Elementary School and Bishop Ryan High School.
He survived to become the dean of local superintendents, his 30-year tenure making him the longest-serving school chief in Erie County when he retired. His last day was Friday, although he will remain on the payroll for several months as he works through the vacation and other time due him.
“There were enough people who responded to my style and learned that this isn’t a game, I’m not interested in people using our board to move to the Town Board,” he said. “I never gave up my integrity, and I never gave up my honor.”
That may have been simple, but it wasn’t always easy.
In his first year, the board was hiring an art teacher, and there was a laid-off teacher who, by law, was to have been asked to take the job first. But that person had moved to another state, and the board majority insisted on appointing someone else. Then a board member asked if the appointee was the wife of an attorney at the same law firm employing the board president and the district’s lawyer. The board room erupted. The two attorneys came into Mazgajewski’s office.
“I won’t tell you the language I used, but I said, ‘You’ve got to be freaking kidding me you did this. You’ve got to be kidding me,’ ” Mazgajewski recalled. Several days later, the board president resigned, and the board was again split, 3-3, until the BOCES superintendent selected a replacement.
It’s been a sometimes grueling education. Some of the things he learned to do or not do over the years:
• He never made secret deals with board members, and if one asked a question, he copied the others on the answer.
• If board members were “straying” from the mission of educating children, he told them.
• You can never win on snow days, but don’t close schools on a forecast.
• Talk to reporters: “I believed the only way to get the truth out was to open my mouth,” he said.
• Build trust in the community and with staff by being honest and respectful.
“I was fortunate enough to be here long enough to build trust. That’s what I’ve always thought some school leaders lack, is to trust the people who work for you, otherwise they shouldn’t be working for you,” he said.
Mazgajewski started in Sloan teaching seventh- and eighth-grade social studies but was laid off due to declining enrollment after about four years. During the time he was out of public education, he worked as a bill collector, and a recruiter for Canisius College. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Canisius , but he thought at the time he would never again work in public education – until the superintendent’s job opened up.
Other superintendents have called on Mazgajewski for advice through the years.
“He has been a mentor to many up-and-coming administrators and superintendents in Western New York,” said Lancaster Superintendent Edward J. Myszka. “He’s been a thoughtful leader during these transitional times.”
He’s never been afraid to say what he thinks, and he thinks education is headed in the wrong direction. “For me, school was always about creating productive citizens who understood the political process and who also knew they needed to be productive people,” he said. “We’ve taken a curriculum that we complained bitterly was a mile wide and an inch deep. Now we’ve made it a mile deep and an inch wide.”
He criticized current standards as requiring a one-size-fits-all approach that has too much standardized testing.
The district is operating on a contingency budget this year, after voters twice defeated budgets with modest tax increases. He said there may be a little “Mazgajewski fatigue” in the electorate and that a change will be good for the district. But he will miss the challenges that are ahead for Cheektowaga-Sloan.
“Yet, I realize it’s not about me. Someone else can come in and do just as good a job or better,” he said. “My job was to be able to create a district that could survive without me, and that’s what your job should be as a leader, that the organization you are leading should be able to survive and flourish without you there.”