Turmoil in the Hamburg Central School District took a dramatic turn Tuesday when the district announced that Superintendent Richard E. Jetter is under investigation by police and that two administrators would be filling in for him.
The move comes as board members learned there were questions about damage to the superintendent’s car.
A witness has surfaced who challenges the prevailing belief that a vandal on May 6 damaged Jetter’s white Nissan Maxima, leaving a typed note under his windshield wiper that said: “Watch your back, you (expletive) sleezebag.” The incident shocked the school community and was a sign that the tumult in the district had crossed the line. Teachers and others rallied behind Jetter the following day.
The witness met with an investigator hired by an attorney representing School Board member Catherine Schrauth Forcucci, who is charged with misconduct and could be removed from office.
The witness also spoke with The Buffalo News and said that the damage did not happen in the school parking lot.
Rather, the witness said, it happened in South Buffalo the day before the School Board meeting. A man driving what appeared to be the superintendent’s car accidentally struck a brown wooden utility pole, according to the witness.
Hamburg village police are “conducting an investigation involving School District Superintendent Dr. Richard Jetter,” the school district said Tuesday. Last week, Police Capt. Michael C. Melisz told The Buffalo News that the investigation of what happened to Jetter’s car remained open and that he welcomed anyone with information to come forward.
Jetter did not respond to an attempt to reach him Tuesday and a source in the district said he was not in the district office. But in a July 11 interview, Jetter vehemently denied that the damage to his car occurred the night before the meeting.
“That’s ridiculous,” he told The News. “That’s absolutely ridiculous.”
School Board President David Yoviene declined to comment Tuesday but said earlier this month, when asked about the allegations: “If anybody really thinks Dr. Jetter staged an accident, that is the most bizarre thing I have heard in my whole life.”
For the last three years, the Hamburg Central School District has been torn apart by infighting and accusations. First one board faction won control, then another. Then the board sued over the leaked recording of an executive session – and in the process tried to uncover the identity of a critical blogger – then a new board dropped the suit. The current board is trying to throw out one of its members, arguing she verbally abused the superintendent, the board president and staff.
The School Board is meeting today to discuss the future of the superintendent – and the district. The School Board had already scheduled an executive session this morning to discuss negotiations with the Hamburg Teachers Association. It also plans to “discuss its options” regarding Jetter at this morning’s meeting. In the meantime, Assistant Superintendent Colleen Kaney and Director of Administrative Services Barbara Sporyz have been named acting superintendents.
Jetter’s status with the school district could not be clarified.
On the evening of May 6, Hamburg Village police responded to the school parking lot regarding a “hit and run accident,” according to a police report about the vandalism. The report notes where the car was parked, that it had “fresh front driver’s side damage,” and that Jetter showed the officer the note, which was collected for evidence.
The report also notes that “there are no witnesses to this incident.”
“It’s still an open investigation,” Melisz told The News last week, adding that anyone with additional information should contact him.
The damage to Jetter’s car came up during the misconduct hearing on Schrauth Forcucci that could lead to her dismissal. Her attorney asked a seemingly innocuous question about the damage on the first night the hearing was open to the public. When the district’s lawyer quickly objected, the attorneys and the hearing officer left the Armor Elementary School cafeteria where the hearing was being held to confer off the record.
They returned and the hearing continued, but attorney Margaret Murphy was not allowed to ask Jetter about his car.
Had she been allowed to pursue her line of questions, this is what she wanted the board to learn: That a witness who came forward talked to a private investigator Murphy hired to investigate.
In addition, Murphy took video of Jetter’s damaged car to two experts in collision repair and accident investigation. Both have signed affidavits that the photographs indicated the vehicle struck a pole.
The Buffalo News interviewed the witness Murphy wanted to bring up at the hearing, and the witness confirmed the scenario to The News.
Murphy tried to enter information from the witness about the damage to Jetter’s car because she said the incident shows the superintendent’s credibility is at issue. He is among those who have accused Schrauth Forcucci of misconduct.
“By him committing this hoax, he has shown he has put his interests above the interests of the district and the community,” Murphy said.
The witness shared information with the private investigator Murphy hired in defending Schrauth Forcucci. The witness recognized Jetter’s damaged car after seeing a photograph of it in The News.
The witness does not want to be identified because of the controversy surrounding the district.
“Of course I’m telling the truth,” the witness told The News. “I could have gone to [Jetter] and asked for money, but I didn’t.”
The witness said the damage occurred between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. on May 5, the day before Jetter told Hamburg village police it occurred during the School Board meeting. The car had been parked on one side of the street in South Buffalo, and it was after 6 p.m., when alternate parking kicked in and the car had to be moved to the other side of the street, the witness said.
The witness described to the private investigator and later confirmed for The News this scene of May 5:
A man was walking with a resident of the street in South Buffalo. The News has confirmed the other person works for the Hamburg district.
The two were walking down the street holding plastic cups, and the resident went into a house, while the man went to move his car. He pulled into a driveway across the street, then backed across the street into a driveway to turn around and in the process the car sideswiped the pole.
The man got out of the car, looked at the damage, and laughed. He moved the car into the resident’s driveway. The resident came out of the house, spoke with the man, and both went into the house.
The person who lives in the house, who The News is not identifying, did not confirm or deny the incident.
“I cannot confirm what happened to Rick Jetter’s mirror,” the resident said.
When The Buffalo News asked Jetter about the witness’ account, Jetter said he was with a friend that evening, but it was not the person who lives on the South Buffalo street. He also said he was not in the area where the witness said the accident occurred.
The same Tuesday night that the damage was reported, the parents of a School Board candidate were in the parking lot to place purple campaign fliers on the cars of those attending the school board meeting.
Raymond Steffan said he and his wife arrived in the parking lot about 6:45 p.m., 15 minutes after the School Board meeting started. They backed into a space along a fence, with a view of the parking lot, while they waited for their son to bring the fliers.
Their son, Kevin Steffan, who later lost in the election, had been linked by some to the minority faction on the board that includes Board Member Sally Stephenson. Steffan denied the connection and called it a “terrible rumor.” Stephenson also denied it, and said she met him for the first time when he spoke at a board meeting in the spring, although she did sign a nominating petition for him.
After Kevin Steffan arrived in the parking lot with they flyers, the parents started putting the fliers on the car windshields. They stayed in the parking lot until the meeting was over and people came out to their cars, and they did not see any vehicle strike the superintendent’s car, he said.
Steffan said there was a car parked next to Jetter’s car. He did not notice if there was any damage to the superintendent’s car as he put the flier on it, Steffan said. He also said he did not step on any debris from the back of the mirror, which was missing its white cover.
But he did notice a folded up paper on Jetter’s windshield as he placed a campaign flier under the wiper blade.
“I lifted the wiper blade up,” he said. “I saw a little white piece of paper under it.”
He said the folded up piece of paper appeared to have been on the car for a while, because it appeared to have become damp with dew at some point.
Rally for Jetter
On May 7, the day after the damage to Jetter’s car was reported, teachers who were outraged at the apparent vandalism organized a demonstration to support their boss.
Jetter emerged smiling from the Hamburg Administration Building to cheers and applause. One sign said, “No need to watch your back, we’ve got it.”
Other people carried a large banner picturing a yellow school bus, part of the superintendent’s “Energy Bus” character campaign, while someone jangled a cow bell.
At the rally, Jetter declared: “They can bust up my car, but they’re not going to break us.”
About 150 people gathered on the front lawn of the district administration building for the rally.
The same day, Jetter posted on his Twitter account about the vandalism to his car and threats: “Cars can be repaired. Threats don’t scare me. Hamburg is great! Students and staff are safe. No one will break my spirit!”
Local media covered the rally.
Community members, and even a board member, linked the vandalism to a “rogue” faction on the School Board, indicating they “knew” who was responsible. Some even mentioned Schrauth Forucci’s family members as the likely culprits.
An article about the rally appeared in the May 8 edition of The Buffalo News. The witness saw a photograph of damage to the superintendent’s car that accompanied a story and believed it was the same car that the witness had seen strike the pole.
The threat and damage to the superintendent’s car was followed later that week by the egging of Jetter’s rental vehicle outside his house in the Town of Tonawanda.
Jetter said he awoke on a Saturday, four days after the damage and note on his car were reported, to find someone had egged the Silverado he rented while his car was being repaired.
“Faceless cowards egging my rental car last night. Is that the best you got???” he tweeted. He told Town of Tonawanda Police he felt the egging could be related to the vandalism to his car in Hamburg.
The vandalism and the egging were held out as examples of how vicious the dysfunction in the school district had gotten.
The vandalism was even cited in state Supreme Court as an argument to keep the misconduct hearing against Schrauth Forcucci closed to the public. The superintendent was the first and main witness against Schrauth Forcucci during the hearing.
Schrauth Forcucci’s attorney said she worried at the time how the report of vandalism would affect the hearing.
“We also were concerned that he and the district would somehow use this incident as a reason why the hearing doors should be closed to the public and media,” Murphy said. “The public perception of the case changed as soon as Dr. Jetter reported his car had been damaged.”
Murphy said that she heard that the car had been damaged previously, and she decided to look into it.
She hired Kenneth Bambach, a private investigator with 20 years of law enforcement experience with the Erie County Sheriff’s Department and U.S. Department of Justice, who went to the scene five weeks after the incident and found white paint on the pole, she said.
She also obtained affidavits from two experts in collision repairs who examined television news video of the damaged car. One expert, with 38 years experience in the automotive, collision and repair industry, determined the damage did not appear to have been caused by another vehicle, but was consistent with striking a cylindrical object such as a utility pole. He also said the brownish-colored substance on the driver’s side door appears similar to creosol, an oily substance typically found on wooden utility poles.
The other expert, a retired police officer trained in accident investigation, said the damage is consistent with the car coming in contact with a stationary object, and did not appear to have been caused by another vehicle.
“That made the information that we received from an unnamed eyewitness credible,” Murphy said.
Murphy wanted to present these affidavits at the Schrauth Forcucci hearing but was denied. She made them available to The News. She said she did not contact the police because she did not know for sure if a report had been filed with them.
The Buffalo News also showed photos of Jetter’s damaged vehicle to three collision repairmen and asked if they could determine what caused it. One was unsure of the cause of the damage, and two said it appeared to have been caused by a pole.
Jetter said his collision shop and insurance adjuster both agreed that someone backed into his car.
Jetter said it is absurd to suggest he drove a damaged car to work that Tuesday, parked in the parking lot, traveled to several schools in the district where he also parked, and no one noticed or said anything about the damage.
“There were tons of people out all day long,” he said.
Yoviene, the board president, said he parked next to the superintendent’s car early that day, although on the passenger side, away from the damage.
“I didn’t notice anything different about the car or anything,” he said.
He said he checked the superintendent’s expense/mileage report for that day, and it showed Jetter visited three schools, including two trips to one of them.
Jetter said that night that he found the threatening note under the campaign flier. He said later that the mirror had been turned in toward the window, and he never pushes the mirror in that direction.
There was a small reflector casing on the ground, and Yoviene said he remembers seeing small bits of plastic on the ground beside the car.
The superintendent told The News July 11 that his enemies – and he mentioned Stephenson by name – are making a false accusation that he damaged his own vehicle.
“I am the target,” he said. “They’re trying to run me out of the district.”
He also said he frequently is followed in his car by people trying to intimidate him into stopping his efforts to get the district on the right track.
Vandalism and intimidation have been brought up several times since the incident.
Jetter mentioned the vandalism to his car in the misconduct hearing. District lawyers also cited the vandalism and threat as they argued before state Supreme Court Justice Diane Devlin that the misconduct hearing should remain closed to the public. Members of the district are concerned for their safety because of the vandalism and threat, attorney Jill Yonkers told the judge.
“When you think about the retribution that has already happened, they don’t want this open to the public because of their own safety,” she told the judge.
The judge later ruled that the hearing should be open to the public, and it has continued in open session.
Murphy said she hopes the board will re-examine Jetter’s testimony against her client. She said the incident “calls into question not only his credibility, but his integrity.”
She said she hopes the new information will prompt the board to reconsider the charges it placed against her client.