A new majority emerged on the Hamburg Central School Board Tuesday night as the board voted to take a step toward hiring a new attorney and to defend the former board president and superintendent in a legal proceeding.
The action came near the end of a wide-ranging, sometimes testy, four-hour long meeting that also included approval of discussions with the Buffalo City School District over the possibility of transferring city students into Hamburg schools and adoption of a time line for the search for a new superintendent.
But in a wider appeal, the board president pleaded with his colleagues to “stop this war” that has divided the board for several months.
“We’ve got to stop this war. We’ve got to stop this crazy witch hunt," Board President David Yoviene said. “This war has got to stop tonight. We should all think about the students. That’s what we’re here for, the students, but we argue about negative adult behavior, over and over.”
Board members voted 5-2 to request for proposals for new legal representation. Three members who voted to hire attorney James D. Tresmond nearly six months ago were in favor of seeking proposals.
“In no way are we replacing Mr. Tresmond tonight,” Yoviene said, although the original motion was to seek proposals to replace the district’s legal representation.
The hiring of Tresmond in a special meeting July 2 was one of the first actions by the new board majority and was criticized by two board members who said they did not have time to interview him or review his contract before it was presented, Others cited his lack of experience in education law.
Tresmond, who has challenged New York’s SAFE Act gun legislation, was a school administrator for more than 20 years, but has no education law background on his legal resume.
“This has been a bone of contention,” Board Member Thomas F. Flynn III said. “It would do this board a world of good if we hit the reset button.”
He said the first job for a new attorney would be to examine Tresmond’s contract, in which the district agreed to pay him a lump sum of $110,000 for the year.
“This was kind of crammed down everybody’s throat,” Flynn said.
“We made a mistake,” Board Member Laura Heeter said of the vote to hire Tresmond. “I made a mistake. The process was not correct. The process was the mistake.”
Vice President Sally Stephenson and Board Member Catherine Schrauth Forcucci were the only two board members to case no votes on seeking proposals from new attorneys and on providing legal representation for former board President Joan Calkins and former Superintendent Steven A. Achramovitch in a complaint filed with the state Division of Human Rights.
Teacher Martha Kavanaugh filed a complaint against the district over a letter Calkins sent to the community that was posted on the district web site last year. The letter announced the board’s intention to sue Kavanaugh, Stephenson and Stephenson’s daughter, Lindsey, a former teacher, saying they were responsible for release of a transcript of a School Board executive session conducted in 2010. Kavanaugh’s complaint was amended recently to add Calkins and Achramovitch as respondents.
Stephenson and Schrauth Forcucci argued that the posting of the letter on the district web site was outside the scope of the board president’s duties, the request for legal representation was late and not signed, and under state law could not be honored.
Other board members argued that indemnifying the former officials was the ethical, correct and the legal course of action.
It was at that point that Yoviene urged the board to “stop this war,” before voting on indemnifying the former officials.
The board also approved discussing the possibility of Hamburg taking some students from Buffalo city schools who have requested to be moved from their underperforming schools. There would be meetings and hearings before any move would come about, Interim Superintendent Richard Jetter said.
“This does not mean anything is authorized,” he said. “We are just gathering information.”
“Shouldn’t we get our house in order first?” a parent asked from the audience.
The board also approved a time line for the superintendent’s search that would have applications due Jan. 3 and a new superintendent selected by the beginning of March. Yoviene said the board had discussed offering a salary up to $175,000.