Catherine Schrauth Forcucci shook hands early Wednesday morning with each and every person who, minutes before, removed her from her elected position on the Hamburg School Board.
Her fellow board members had decided, 5-1, she was too confrontational to continue serving.
Many in the Armor Elementary School cafeteria sighed in relief. The four-plus hours of deliberations were a culmination of a hearing that stretched 45 hours since charges of official misconduct were brought against Schrauth Forcucci on April 30. Some see her ouster as a turning point for the beleaguered school district.
Schrauth Forcucci has not yet decided whether she will appeal the board’s decision, but it’s clear that the hearing has altered the district.
There is the possibility that had the charges not been placed against Schrauth Forcucci, Superintendent Richard E. Jetter would not have been placed on administrative leave.
And one board member – the president – said he would not go forward with the hearing if he had to do it over again.
Tuesday’s nearly 6-hour meeting that ended after midnight Wednesday was exhausting for community members, board members and Schrauth Forcucci.
She wept as hearing officer David A. Hoover read his recommendations, which were that most of the allegations about her were true, and that they constituted official misconduct. She got up from the board table and stood against the wall while he finished, saying that she had “engaged in a pattern of inappropriate, antagonistic conduct,” much of it in the form of bullying.
And as she shook hands with her former colleagues, no one knew if that was the end of her time on the board, or just the end of this chapter.
Schrauth Forcucci said moments after the decision that she could not decide then whether to appeal the board’s action to the state education commissioner.
Her attorney, Margaret A. Murphy, said that her client needed a good night’s sleep and that she does not expect a decision until the end of the week.
“Do I think we can win? Absolutely,” Murphy said.
But Murphy added, “That means more money to the district, more money to Catherine and her husband, and what do you get in the end?”
The district has spent more than $100,000 on legal fees leading up to and including the hearing, as well as the cost of the hearing officer and stenographer.
Still, Murphy said, Schrauth Forcucci had always taken the position she wanted to see the process through to the end. She fought in State Supreme Court to open the hearing to the public. Murphy said the standard for removing an elected official is high, and she does not believe it was reached in this case.
“It still doesn’t come close to official misconduct,” she said.
Murphy already has challenged the proceeding by submitting a petition to the state education commissioner arguing the board president should not be allowed to both bring the charges and then deliberate on them. She also has questioned board member Cameron Hall’s bias, since she said he signed a petition last fall to have Schrauth Forcucci removed. If those two people were disqualified from voting, there would not have been enough votes to bring the charges or to remove her, Murphy said.
Board member Sally A. Stephenson, who was the lone vote against removing Schrauth Forcucci, said the district should have waited until her term was up and let the voters decide.
“I’m disappointed,” she said. “We spent a whole heck of a lot of money when we could have gone straight to the commissioner of education. We could have brought back intramurals instead.”
The board found that Schrauth Forcucci:
• Berated and/or verbally attacked board President David Yoviene and then interim Superintendent Richard E. Jetter, Boston Valley Principal and district safety officer James Martinez, as well as the superintendents’s secretary and a clerk.
• Refused to leave the district office Sept. 24, 2013, until police asked her to leave.
• Invaded the superintendent’s “personal space.”
• Impaired the ability of the board to function and had been confrontational with the public and school employees.
Board members said they took their time going through each specification of official misconduct, referring to the hearing officer’s recommendations and the transcript of the hearing.
“There was a lot of time and effort and reflection spent on making this decision,” board member Laura J. Heeter said. “It was certainly nothing I took lightly.”
She called it a tragic situation “all the way around.”
Board Vice President Thomas F. Flynn III also said the board took the matter extremely seriously, and the board had some “good, deep discussions” during the 4½ hours of deliberations.
“I don’t think you can be happy when you remove somebody like this. It’s an unfortunate situation,” Flynn said.
Board members said they have not discussed how they might fill the vacancy, but they could talk about it at next week’s meeting. The School Board could appoint someone to fill the vacancy or conduct a special election.
Meanwhile, Yoviene said he would not have voted for the charges or the hearing.
“In hindsight, absolutely not,” he said. “I didn’t think it would take so long. I didn’t think it would cost so much.”
He also said he feels badly about “the beating Catherine took,” and he knows how upset her family has been.
There also is the possibility that, had it not been for the publicity surrounding the charges and the hearing, Jetter would not have been placed on administrative leave.
Jetter admitted to police in July that he struck a utility pole while driving in South Buffalo in May but filed a report that unknown vandals had damaged his car in a school parking lot.
A witness who saw him sideswipe the pole noticed the photo of the car in The Buffalo News, and told Murphy and The News about it. Jetter confessed to police after The News asked him if the damage occurred in Buffalo.
The board placed Jetter on paid administrative leave July 23, and discounted his testimony in their deliberations. He has been charged with filing a false police report, and the Erie County District Attorney’s Office has offered him a plea deal. If he doesn’t take it by Monday, the case will go to the grand jury.
The board president said that after the grueling last four months that have brought the district much negative attention, he looks forward to the board focusing on issues like student achievement and Common Core standards.
“I didn’t sign up for this crazy drama and this war,” Yoviene said.