Elmwood Franklin School, once gripped in turmoil, looks ahead with arrival of interim head - The Buffalo News
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Elmwood Franklin School, once gripped in turmoil, looks ahead with arrival of interim head

An interim head of school will start at Elmwood Franklin School in August as those at the private elementary and middle school in North Buffalo try to move on from the turmoil that led to the ouster of its previous top administrator.

The school two weeks ago hired Fred Acquavita as its top administrator. Acquavita, who recently retired as headmaster at St. Thomas’s Day School in New Haven, Conn., is expected to oversee Elmwood Franklin for at least one year while a search is conducted for a successor to Margaret Keller-Cogan, said Michael Joseph, the school’s board president.

It has taken Elmwood Franklin several months to regain its footing after internal conflict rocked the faculty and board this year.

The school year was characterized by miscommunication, accusations of subterfuge, angry responses by parents, and a petition drive against the school’s leadership that culminated with the firings of three employees, Keller-Cogan’s ouster and the resignations of nearly three-quarters of the school’s board of trustees.

“I was as shocked as anyone to find out there was anything [disruptive] going on at the school,” said Joseph, who served on the board 10 years ago.

Joseph, president of Clover Development, had not been closely involved with the school until he was asked to return to the board after Matthew Enstice stepped down as board president and 14 other trustees resigned in May. Today, Joseph said, the mood at the school is positive. He said he has worked with an almost entirely new board to “calm the school down, calm the teachers down, and get back on track.”

Two of the three fired employees resumed working at the school; the third decided to take another job elsewhere.

A breach-of-contract suit Keller-Cogan has filed in State Supreme Court against Elmwood Franklin lays out her version of what happened.

The school hired Keller-Cogan in March 2012. She said in her lawsuit that from her first days at Elmwood Franklin she held regular meetings with board members and faculty to go over changes the board “had directed her to implement.”

Improving the curriculum, increasing the student retention rate and enrollment, and creating a teacher appraisal system were among the “strategic goals” the board established for her, she said in her lawsuit.

But as early as fall 2012, she said, the administrators for the upper and lower grade levels told Keller-Cogan the lower school faculty resisted some proposed changes.

She said in her lawsuit, “it became clear ... that the heads were not supporting [her] in her efforts to implement the board’s strategic plan, nor were they supporting [her] as the leader of the school.”

In February, according to the lawsuit, the board approved her plan to “restructure” the two positions of the heads of the upper and lower schools. The plan would have resulted in one position to provide professional development and instructional support and a second position to supervise the staff and students. When she met with the heads to share the reorganization plan, she asked them to keep the plan confidential until she had a chance to meet with faculty the following week.

“Within 60 minutes of those meetings, word was out throughout the school that the administrators were being terminated,” she said.

Faculty members and parents protested to the board.

After the faculty meeting, with the board under pressure from parents and faculty, some board members changed their minds, so she and the board agreed to reverse the restructuring plan, she said.

In April, Nardin Academy sent a targeted mailing soliciting parents of Elmwood Franklin students to enroll their children at Nardin, according to Keller-Cogan’s lawsuit.

After consulting with board members who suspected someone in administration gave the parent directory to Nardin, Keller-Cogan ordered a search of computers the administrators used, according to the suit.

“The forensic examination revealed that several administrators had been conspiring since February 2013, along with certain board members, teachers, parents and others involved with Elmwood Franklin School to have donors pull financial backing for a new addition to the school, attempt to produce a no-confidence vote against [her], petition to begin a teachers’ union, threaten the successful re-accreditation of the school, and secretly communicate negative and factually inaccurate information about [her] and members of the board’s executive committee to parents,” according to the lawsuit.

It came to a head in May, when “the board insisted that [Keller-Cogan] immediately terminate three administrators because of their insubordinate and harmful behavior.”

At a May 9 meeting, Enstice and Keller-Cogan delivered prepared remarks to “several hundred parents and staff.” For two hours, others who spoke at the meeting protested the firings and made statements that were “highly critical and often inaccurate” about her, she said in her lawsuit. The next day, Enstice complimented her on how well she handled herself at the meeting.

Then he and another board member told her she was suspended with pay and said the board would negotiate the terms of her resignation, she said.

Joseph, who joined the board later, said Tuesday that, despite her lawsuit, he feels talks with Keller-Cogan are going well.

“I imagine this was done by her attorneys to protect her position,” Joseph said. “I expect we will put this all to bed soon.”

He also has been open with Elmwood Franklin supporters about the events of the past year and wrote them a letter in June.

“When I stepped back in as reinstated board president, the school was seriously fractured into at least three broad groups, those supporting our teachers and administration, those supporting our board and school head, and those who might not have a particularly strong opinion on who was right or wrong but were simply fed up with the bickering and fighting that has brought our beloved school to its knees.”

While pragmatic about the task ahead in bringing the groups together, Joseph said he remains optimistic about the school’s direction, noting the school has lost none of its teachers and registered new students. Even former board members who resigned in May are doing what they can to support the school, he added.

“Sometimes when you are perceived as part of the problem, the best thing is to step away,” Joseph said. “These were all people who loved the school, but some may have lost the ability to listen to other people’s opinions.”

Like many schools locally, Elmwood Franklin faces a changing population and shrinking enrollment. A new head of school will have to address the challenges, he said.

Some 330 students attend Elmwood Franklin, and tuition ranges from about $15,000 to $18,000 annually, depending on the student’s grade.

email: mmiller@buffnews.com

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