You might say Norman Zintz takes the pulse of the Village of Hamburg every day.
He chats with lawyers and the mayor, retired folks and mothers walking their children in strollers, as he sells hot dogs from his cart on Main and Buffalo streets in the community 12 miles south of Buffalo.
From the Hamburg Village Plaza, to the library, to the coffee shops and restaurants, to Zintz’s stand selling Sahlen’s hot dogs, what they are talking about is the Hamburg Central School District: from secret tapings to legal actions, from a threat against the superintendent to a board candidate wanting to drop out of the race.
And the talk isn’t pretty.
“You’ve got to focus on educating these children, and stop all the politics, the infighting, the power struggle. It’s just ridiculous,” he said. “I’m embarrassed. It makes the Buffalo paper, for god’s sakes!”
The village, which overlooks picturesque Eighteen Mile Creek, was bustling Friday, with pink and purple flower baskets hanging outside the florists on Main Street, attracting shoppers choosing Mother’s Day gifts. Some walkers, glad to be out and about after a long winter, roll their eyes at the mention of the School Board. Others have relatives working for the district, and don’t want to say anything at all about the dysfunction and chaos.
Recent events include:
• Charges of official misconduct placed against board member Catherine Schrauth Forcucci.
• A threatening note left for the superintendent after a vehicle hit his car in a school parking lot.
• A School Board candidate who wanted to withdraw from the race after he said false Facebook rumors connected him to a faction on the board.
But Kevin Steffan changed his mind Friday evening, and said he is remaining in the race.
He said he was happy with a candidates forum Wednesday night, where he declared his independence from those in the board minority. The Pembroke Central School teacher said rumors persisted in the community that his candidacy was being secretly funded, and that he was aligned with Vice President Sally Stephenson and others. He said he was shocked after the forum when he saw comments on his Facebook page from longtime friends questioning his ethics because they believed the rumors were true.
“I was literally weeping on my living room floor,” Steffan said.
He decided to end his candidacy that night, and to make sure no one thought he was aligned with the minority, he said he was supporting board member Thomas F. Flynn III and candidate Cameron Hall. But Friday evening he said that was a decision “made in haste.” The vote is May 20.
After he announced on his Facebook page he was withdrawing, he heard from many supporters who urged him to stay in the race, and he talked with three superintendents and two school board presidents, and decided the stay in, he said.
“If anybody’s seen my signs and seen my fliers that are handmade, they know I don’t have any funding,” he said, adding that his biggest concern was the rumor.
Many in Hamburg were happy to see good attendance at a rally Wednesday in support of Superintendent Richard E. Jetter, who discovered a threatening note on his car after the budget hearing the previous night. Village police said they are still investigating, but have no updates to report on the note and the vandalism to Jetter’s car.
But the escalation of the dissension has touched a chord with residents.
“You got somebody, a grown adult, threatening the superintendent? Enough is enough. It’s gotten out of control,” said Jimmie Butera, the owner of Jimmie’s Pizza on Buffalo Street.
While his business is in the village, Butera lives in a section of the Town of Hamburg that is in the Frontier Central School District, where his three children go to school. But his customers are talking about the Hamburg district.
“The issue is, they keep taking away programs from the kids and it’s not getting anything accomplished other than a lot of bickering,” he said. “I don’t know what all the bickering is about, I just know there is a lot of bickering, a lot of bruised egos, a lot of angry parents as well as board members.”
Many in Hamburg are sick of seeing their district in the news, and say the discord is taking away from the schools, which have always had a good reputation.
“It’s got to be awfully demoralizing to the faculty and staff,” one resident said.
“The sad part of it is I think our school system is great, marks are up, everything looks good,” said Village Mayor Thomas J. Moses Sr. “People are going to start questioning, ‘Do I really want to move there with all this dysfunction?’ ”
Moses has attended School Board meetings for months, and agrees with residents who want the chaos to stop.
People are starting to pay more attention. About 200 attended the candidates’ forum, sponsored by the PTSA and moderated by the League of Women Voters. Laura McDade of the League said that was the most she had ever seen at a school candidates night.
“I think people wanted to say we want to see this time who we’re voting for,” she said.
Karen Coen, who has three children attending Hamburg schools, said it was the first time she had attended a forum, and she was impressed with several of the candidates. There are six candidates running for two seats.
“I would like to get rid of the drama,” she said. “I would like to see the kids come first instead of peoples’ own agenda.”
Even state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. urged the board to get along two months ago. In a decision denying the petition to remove two board members, King said the dissension and conflict on the board is well documented, and the record shows how conflict can interfere with the ability to run the district.
King strongly urged the board “to engage in constructive discussions – not only as a board, but also with district staff and the community– aimed at eliminating conflict and achieving the best possible governance of the school district.”
Back on Buffalo Street, Zintz said his grandson gets a red star when he does something wrong, and a green star when he’s having a good day.
“In a phrase, the children don’t work and play well together, do they?” he said of the board. “No green star for them.”