It took an act of vandalism to unite the good people of Hamburg.
About 150 of them showed up Wednesday afternoon, Hamburg Strong, on the lawn of the school district’s administration building. Some carried signs, others had kids in hand, all wanted to make a point: Decency wins.
It was a show of support for Superintendent Rick Jetter, whose car was vandalized – and a threatening note left on it – during a Tuesday night budget hearing. But it was about more than Jetter.
Although there is no proof, many suspect the culprit is someone sympathetic to a “rogue” faction on the school board that has in recent years stained the district’s image. The rally was, in that sense, a declaration for decency, a denunciation of dysfunction and a public shout-out for civility in a once-sleepy district.
Not bad, for an after-school gathering.
Board President Dave Yoviene, elected last year as a reformer, said the threat to Jetter “will only make us stronger. We’re going to stick together and put this board back together.”
The unity was tested again this weekend. Jetter said his rental car was egged overnight Friday in the driveway of his Town of Tonawanda home. The second incident in a week seemed to reinforce the notion expressed by some at Wednesday’s rally: The closer the so-called rogue faction on the board comes to losing power, the more desperate those sympathetic to them get.
Last week’s show of force for sanity was needed, given what the rest of us have seen the past few years from Hamburg’s school board. Their antics have at times made Buffalo’s school overseers seem seer-like in comparison. Arguments, secret recordings of closed-door board meetings, nasty anonymous blog posts, accusations of cover-ups of student drug use, formal complaints, connections to the alleged intimidation of a teenage rape victim, lawsuits, threats. It makes “The Housewives of Beverly Hills” look like a neighborhood book club.
All of it violated the community’s image as a crisis-lite bedroom 'burg. Most of the mayhem was seemingly traceable to a rogue faction on the board that got a toehold before most folks were paying attention. School board members are volunteers, some candidates don’t even bother with lawn signs. It’s not hard, given historically low voter turnouts, to mount a winning campaign.
“We found out that people who want to abuse power, who have ulterior motives, can hijack the system,” said Ed Piazza of the parent group Hamburg Education Information. “It’s sad, because these are kids’ lives they’re tampering with.”
Piazza is a business owner with three kids in Hamburg schools. He co-founded the parent group with the partial agenda of replacing Sally Stephenson, Holly Balaya and Catherine Schrauth Forcucci on the seven-member board. The targeted members claim they’re independent voices trying to reveal board abuses and cover-ups.
“We’ve got great academics, successful athletic programs – the district has a lot to endorse it,” Piazza said. “We’d love to have the media write about that, instead of the antics of a few bad board members.”
Turmoil is predictable in an urban district like Buffalo, which is beset by racial politics, burdened with failing schools and stuffed with poor kids from busted homes on battered streets. Hamburg is a different animal: Upscale and downwind of the lakeshore, it’s a place where most parents are college-educated, most kids are college-bound and nobody’s neighborhood is blighted. The rubric – Can’t We All Just Get Along? – should be more of a given in Hamburg than a goal.
One sooner expects a dog to recite the Gettysburg Address or the Bills to make the playoffs than to see a blood feud on Hamburg’s school board. Something was clearly amiss with the universe.
Only with last year’s board election – the new board president, Yoviene, essentially ran on a ‘sanity’ theme – has the chaos been lowered to a slow boil, heading toward simmer. A board majority last month voted to start the process that could remove Schrauth Forcucci for misconduct. The May 20 board election is expected to solidify the civility and finally get Hamburg out of the headlines.
“There’s nothing wrong with opposition, or standing against the majority,” Yoviene said. “It’s the way the message has been delivered.”
Tuesday’s trashing of Jetter’s car was widely seen, although there is no ‘smoking gun’ security footage, as a last-gasp act of intimidation by someone sympathetic to the board’s weakening “rogue” faction. Friday night’s egging incident – even more intimidating, given that it happened outside of Jetter’s Tonawanda home, where he lives with his wife and children – seemed to reinforce the theory.
“This is their game,” Piazza said of the tactics. “They intimidate. They write about you anonymously on a blog. They disparage your family. They say awful things about you.”
Mark the post-vandalism rally as a response by those tired of bully tactics – and ready for the rest of WNY to stop wondering what’s in the lake water they’re drinking in Hamburg.
Jetter was gratified by the show of support. I met him 15 years ago, after he started an anti-bullying program as an assistant principal in Kenmore. He said it didn’t feel good, going from protector to victim.
“The note was disturbing,” he told me, “but they’re not going to break my spirit.”
There may only be one thing that upsets a school superintendent more than a hit-and-run coward dinging his car. It’s when the message left on the windshield, “Watch your back...sleezebag,” contains an appalling misspelling.
Note to perp: It’s “sleazebag.” Jetter could only conclude that the miscreant was not educated in Hamburg schools.
Good spelling, core values. It’s what the district was once – and hopes soon to again – be known for.