At the conclusion of the Hamburg School Board meeting Tuesday night, board president David Yoviene was picking up the pieces of the gavel broken during the raucous session. Yoviene may be able to piece together the gavel, but it will be far more difficult to put together a peace in Hamburg, even with the state education commissioner urging the district’s major players to try to get along.
There was little order at the meeting that night, as has too often been the case with this drama-laden School Board over many months. Board members Tuesday argued, accusations flew, and the audience erupted into a standing ovation when the district’s interim superintendent was confirmed as the new permanent superintendent.
Three days later, word spread that State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. wrote to the district and said he wants the Hamburg Central School Board, staff and community to get their acts together and start getting along.
His comments came in a written decision, denying the petition of parent Daniel J. Chiacchia seeking to remove Vice President Sally Stephenson and her daughter, fellow board member Holly Balaya, from the board.
Late last year, King indicated that the district’s problems were on his radar, and in his decision he addressed the dysfunction affecting the district, pointing to the many legal actions that have been taken by the board members and the public.
“The record before me illustrates all too well how conflict and an atmosphere of this nature can interfere with the board’s ability to govern the affairs of district and can undermine the public’s confidence in its elected School Board,” he wrote.
He strongly urged Stephenson and Balaya and 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.”
Margaret Murphy, the attorney for Stephenson and Balaya, said her clients are happy with the decision, and she said she particularly likes King’s statements on getting along.
“It’s time everyone sit down, take a breath and get down to the business of what a board should be doing,” Murphy said.
Chiacchia maintains those words from the commissioner are an admonishment to Balaya and Stephenson. He said he was disappointed the commissioner did not remove them.
“He had plenty of ammunition to do the right thing, and I feel it was a gutless decision,” Chiacchia said.
Murphy said the statement was not an admonishment, and that it was aimed at the entire board, staff and community.
Conflict that King was referring to could be seen at Tuesday’s board meeting, when Stephenson and board member Catherine Schrauth-Forcucci opposed Richard E. Jetter’s appointment as the new school superintendent.
Most of the 80 parents and staff in the audience stood and cheered as Yoviene read the resolution to appoint Jetter, who has served as interim superintendent since July.
Stephenson and Schrauth-Forcucci complained that they received the five-year contract just several hours before the meeting. They objected to his starting salary of $164,000, which rises each year until 2019, when he would make $169,000. Stephenson pointed out that Jetter will make more than the lieutenant governor, state comptroller, attorney general and county executive.
“This is completely irrelevant,” board member Laura Heeter said. “He just got a standing ovation. We’re not discussing this out here.”
“I don’t have to be popular but I’m going to state something,” Stephenson said, noting the district’s budget gap stands at $2.2 million. “We can’t afford this. We have a superintendent. He’s a nice guy, but he doesn’t have the experience of some of the people we interviewed.”
Schrauth-Forcucci went further. She said past practice in the district has been to give superintendents three-year contracts, and to hire experienced administrators who have served as superintendent in another district. Under those parameters, she said, Jetter is not qualified. She also said he noted in his last district newsletter column on the budget that “Santa is not coming to Hamburg.”
“It’s obvious that Santa is coming to the Jetter household,” Schrauth-Forcucci said of his contract.
Parents objected loudly, and Yoviene pounded the gavel for order and said the contract was in line with those given to area superintendents.
“Look up Clarence, look up Orchard Park, look up Lancaster – we got him cheap,” he said. “In the end, we chose the guy that we knew could handle the dysfunction. We chose the guy that stuck with us. We chose the guy that’s one of us, that’s a part of our family.”
“I think the 4-to-2 vote makes me feel I’m doing my job,” Jetter said, adding that he appreciates the support from four members of the board.
There was plenty of “audience participation” up to that point, and it continued when Chiacchia took the microphone during the public expression section at the end of the meeting.
He accused Schrauth-Forcucci’s husband of tripping him in the aisle at the last board meeting.
“Excuse me?” Schrauth-Forcucci yelled.
That’s when Stephenson, the board vice president, grabbed the gavel and pounded it. She said Chiacchia violated the district’s civility policy covering employees, parents and the public.
“I’m giving you your opportunity right now to resign, before I tell them what you did,” he said to Stephenson.
Chiacchia accused her of violating her duties as a board member by giving an affidavit to a former teacher suing the district and a former board member for defamation. He said she refused to be deposed in the case by the district’s lawyer.
Stephenson suggested he read the deposition at the meeting, and she said later that she told the district lawyer she had nothing to add about the defamation charges. She said she was asked by the plaintiff to describe an interaction with the respondent, and she did.
“As a board member, you are not supposed to act on involving district business without the board,” Chiacchia contended. “I wish there was a provision in the code,” he said, “to suspend her now pending a formal investigation.”
When the meeting was over, board president Yoviene cradled a broken gavel in his hands. A chip was missing from the gavel, a visible sign of a district that also needs mending.