The tide appears to be turning in the Hamburg Central School District.
School Board members hired a new law firm, and put a teacher on administrative leave Tuesday night, prompting applause from some parents and staff who had wanted the board to take those actions for weeks.
“I congratulate everyone here tonight. Thank you for effecting change,” said Ed Piazza, a leader of a parents group that formed last summer when some parents did not like the actions of the new board majority. The group solicited signatures on petitions to remove three board members.
The board had hired James D. Tresmond as the attorney for the district in July. The appointment was criticized by members of the community who said the board did not seek proposals from other law firms, and that Tresmond did not have education law experience.
On Tuesday, the board hired Hodgson Russ, a large firm widely known for its experience in education law, to replace Tresmond immediately.
“I think it’s a great firm,” said Vice President Sally Stephenson, who engineered the appointment of Tresmond in July. “I feel in very good hands with Hodgson Russ.”
But board members Holly Balaya and Catherine Schrauth-Forcucci voted against hiring the firm because they said there were proposals from other law firms that would charge less.
“I cannot vote for hiring the most expensive firm,” Balaya said.
Hourly fees for Hodgson Russ range from $113 for a paralegal to $247 for a law partner, said Business Administrator Barbara Sporyz.
The board also hired another firm, Bond, Schoeneck & King, to step in if Hodgson Russ should have a conflict of interest. Schrauth-Forcucci voted against hiring the second firm.
The board also voted to put a teacher, identified by parents as Martha Kavanaugh, on administrative leave starting Wednesday. Kavanaugh has been on sick leave since October.
She has filed 26 grievances or complaints against the district, and she has claimed that administrators have punished her because she tried to get them to act against students involved in drug dealing and she refused to change students’ grades.
Stephenson and Balaya abstained on the vote to put her on leave, and Schrauth-Forcucci voted against it. She and Stephenson suggested putting off the vote.
“Since we just appointed legal counsel, should we get their opinion?” Schrauth-Forcucci asked. “Let’s ask the attorney about this before we put the district and taxpayers in harm’s way.”
When Stephenson spoke up on the issue, parent and attorney Daniel Chiacchia yelled at her from the audience.
“She has a conflict of opinion,” he said of Stephenson.
“She’s your best friend ...,” he said of Kavanaugh.
Chiacchia has filed petitions with the state education commissioner to remove Stephenson and Balaya from the board for not disclosing what he said were conflicts of interest before a vote. Chiacchia also charged in the petition that Tresmond, the former board attorney, has a close personal relationship with Stephenson that she failed to disclose. Both she and Tresmond denied that.
Tresmond said he and the School Board agreed that his yearlong contract with the district would end Dec. 31, 2013, rather than next June 30.
“There was so much criticism; so much bad press,” he said. “All the controversy, it was just incredible to watch. I just didn’t want to be part of that, didn’t want to be part of a negative inference drawn on the school district.”