Robert J. Puchalski, the 12-year veteran principal at Cayuga Heights Elementary School, was fired by the Depew Union Free School District on Tuesday for allegedly misappropriating school funds and racking up nearly 300 hours in personal or romantic telephone calls with a pair of school secretaries while on the job.
Puchalski, 60, who had been employed by the district since April 1993, abruptly left his post Dec. 8, 2011, without explanation. As the days evolved into weeks and then months, his absence only fueled speculation in the school community that he was suspended for mishandling funds and romantic involvements. District officials remained mum.
This week, the district released a 21-charge statement against him, which was upheld Tuesday by a hearing officer.
“This is an abnormal amount of charges,” said Superintendent Jeffrey R. Rabey, who, when asked Thursday to comment on the matter, explained that the district’s months-long investigation began immediately upon receiving a complaint in November 2011. “The district took this case very seriously,” he said.
A hearing officer found “overwhelming and convincing evidence” that Puchalski engaged in repeated “misconduct, immoral character and/or conduct unbecoming a principal” as well as insubordination and neglect of duty. The hearing officer imposed a penalty of termination.
While the district prepared its case against him, Puchalski received his nearly $118,000 annual salary.
District documents show Puchalski failed to deposit field trip funds given to him by teachers, including:
• Nearly $126 out of $368.07 given to him by a fifth-grade teacher for a 2011 field trip to a Buffalo Bisons baseball game.
• All of the $137.50 given to him by a second-grade teacher for a field trip to Bippert Farms in October 2010.
• A fourth-grade teacher’s remittance of $1,395 for a field trip to Genesee Country Village in 2010, of which Puchalski deposited $555 and subsequently withdrew $1,020.52 from a district trust account to pay for the trip.
• $1,270 given by the same teacher a year later, of which Puchalski deposited $562 and then later withdrew about $853 to pay for the trip.
• $518 from a kindergarten teacher for a field trip to Watt Farms in October 2011, of which Puchalski deposited $312 and then subsequently withdrew $1,200.11 from the district’s trust account.
• All $677 given to him by an elementary music teacher that was collected from 113 third-grade students for the purchase of a musical recorder in November 2011 before later reporting he had received no student funds for them.
Puchalski was found to have had extended telephone conversations with two school secretaries between 2009 and 2011, one of whom has since resigned from the district. The district investigation found Puchalski amassed 17,730 minutes on the phone with the two secretaries.
Subsequent email communications and cards or letters discovered by the district between Puchalski and the secretaries suggested “intimate,” “romantic” or “sexual” relationships existed, according to district documents.
Rabey said the district is attempting to recoup about $1,000 in ascertainable missing funds and that the Erie County District Attorney’s Office has been notified about the matter.