Share this article

print logo

SCHOOL CHIEF RELIEVED OF DUTIES
ORCHARD PARK BOARD ORDERS CELL PHONE, CREDIT CARD PROBE

The Orchard Park School District's once-sterling reputation was further tarnished Tuesday as Superintendent Paul J. Grekalski limped out of his office on a crutch and headed out the door, placed on a paid leave amid mounting allegations that he had misused a district credit card and cell phone.

The former superintendent of a Chautauqua County system had been brought into the sharply divided district to, as one board member said last year, "make us whole again."

But last year's unanimous board support was transformed Tuesday into unanimous concern about conduct that the board president called "inappropriate and imprudent."

Since September, more than 30 calls to escort services and sex chat lines have been placed from Grekalski's district-issued cell phone, The Buffalo News reported Tuesday, while also noting that the district has been paying Grekalski's rent for several months and that his property taxes in Chautauqua County are not paid.

Grekalski came under scrutiny last month for using a district credit card -- which the board didn't know he had -- for personal purchases for which he reimbursed the district.

Tuesday, many parents were calling for him to step down.

"I would like to see Grekalski resign. That seems best for everyone," said Ky Herreid, father of four young children. "You want a guy in his position to be squeaky clean. Even the appearance of impropriety when you're superintendent of schools is a problem."

Tuesday night's School Board meeting drew an overflow crowd of 250 people, many criticizing the board for hiring Grekalski. Board members, who all looked glum, did not respond.

Earlier in the day, Joseph F. Bieron, School Board president, said recent events constitute a disturbing pattern of behavior. The board voted unanimously to place Grekalski, 57, on paid leave and have Karl Kristoff, the district's attorney, investigate his conduct. It also appointed Assistant Superintendent Joan Thomas as acting superintendent.

After meeting with Bieron and Kristoff for more than an hour behind closed doors, Grekalski left the administration building, hobbling on a crutch because of injuries he said he had suffered over the weekend while fly-fishing.

Three years ago, an $87 million plan to build a new high school in Orchard Park and reconfigure other buildings sparked a taxpayer revolt whose effects still are reverberating.

A few months after the plan was defeated, residents elected a slate of taxpayer candidates to the board, which then frequently butted heads with then-Superintendent Charles L. Stoddart over budgets, staffing and building projects.

Stoddart, superintendent for more than 20 years, retired last June.

Grekalski, superintendent of the Frewsburg School District in Chautauqua County for 18 years, came to Orchard Park in June, touting his success in bringing together disparate groups and putting together budgets that taxpayer groups could support.

He got off to a rocky start by missing his first scheduled meeting with administrators, then arriving 45 minutes late for the second.

For the first five months, he was absent an average of one day a week, according to district records, and by his own admission generally came in at 10 a.m. or later.

Board members, though, say Grekalski crafted a budget that carries the smallest tax increase in several years.

Bieron stood by the decision to hire him. "Let me be very clear on this," he said. "Mr. Grekalski has done enormous good in this district since he's been here."

At the same time, he said, the board is "deeply concerned" about the reports on calls made on Grekalski's cell phone.

Twenty-four calls to escort services and 15 calls to sex chat lines were made on the district-issued cell phone since September, according to a Buffalo News review of district cell phone records.

Grekalski said the calls were made while his 25-year-old son, Paul Jr., had the phone. His son said he had loaned the phone to friends, who made the calls.

Some residents say who made the calls doesn't matter. "I think some of his credibility is lost in this," said Nancy Brown, president of the district's Central Council Parent Teacher Organization. "It started with the credit card, and now it's this. Is this going to open a Pandora's box? It's already two or three things, and then it's the taxes (he didn't pay). What else could there be?"

Under his contract, Grekalski, who is paid $140,000 a year, is entitled to 18 months' pay if the board fires him without just cause.

The contract also gives the board the option of bringing charges against him if it believes it has just cause. That would trigger a formal hearing process.

Orchard Park High senior Abby Stender said the board's mistakes had made a "a sideshow freak act" of the district. During the public portion of the evening board meeting, senior Lauren Harrison, president of the Students, Teachers, Administrators and Parents Committee, said the bad publicity is "not a reflection on the quality of the classroom instruction" but predicted the board's proposed budget would quicken "the downward spiral of this district."

During the public portion of Tuesday night's meeting, Jason Winnicki, president of the Orchard Park Teacher Association, said he had served on one of six committees that urged hiring a superintendent from within the district. Thomas was one of the two they recommended.

Thomas said the time had come to "stop looking backwards" and to move forward with the business of education. She received an extended ovation.

The crowd also repeatedly applauded comments critical of James T. Crean, a former board member who was acting president when Grekalski was hired. Crean is expected to be a candidate in the May 17 School Board election.

News Staff Reporter Anthony Cardinale contributed to this article.

e-mail: mpasciak@buffnews.com

There are no comments - be the first to comment