Chaos spurs democracy in Hamburg schools - The Buffalo News
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Chaos spurs democracy in Hamburg schools

Sometimes it takes a crisis to get folks off of the couch, a disaster to turn apathy into activism.

Hamburg schools got hijacked last year. A band of parents helped to get them back.

“Everyone became united by the idea,” said Ed Piazza, “that we had to stand up for our community.”

Welcome to democracy – a participant sport.

A year ago, there was no Hamburg Education Information parent group. Thursday afternoon, I sat with Piazza, his wife, Beth, and two of a band of other adults who morphed into activists, uniting as parents to save their schools. It was part backyard chat, part victory lap.

Tuesday’s School Board election – with a crisis-driven record turnout – solidified the district’s return to sanity. The re-election of an incumbent and addition of a newcomer cemented a rational majority on the seven-member board. The vote further reduced the power of a “rogue” faction and supporters who, with methods ranging from anonymous blogs to frivolous lawsuits to personal-agenda policies, had intimidated teachers, turned board meetings into circuses and wrested the title of “dysfunctional” school board from Buffalo.

“It was just not acceptable to me,” said Jennifer Reagan, who has two kids in Hamburg schools. “I grew up here. My father went to school here. This wasn’t the Hamburg I knew. We’re better than this.”

Critics say Sally Stephenson joined the board two years ago to carry out a vendetta against the district for firing her daughter, Lindsey Stephenson, a teacher, and disciplining Lindsey’s friend, teacher Martha Kavanaugh. Another Stephenson daughter, Holly Balaya, was already on the board. Last year’s addition of Catherine Schrauth Forcucci and others gave the “rogues” a board majority. Within days, the longtime board attorney was replaced, the outgoing superintendent’s exit was hastened, respected principals faced transfer, and the district dropped a lawsuit involving Sally and Lindsey Stephenson.

“There were red flags right away,” said Ed Piazza, sitting on the back deck of his Hamburg home. “Questionable moves, done way too fast.”

The Stephenson-led majority said they were reformers intent on uncovering district problems, including student drug use.

The problem for many in the community was not just the agenda of the new majority and allies, but their tactics. There was an anonymous blog that vilified critics, secret tapings of closed-door board sessions and intimidation – most recently, suspicions surrounding damage done to Superintendent Rick Jetter’s vehicles.

The parent group of five, brought together by shared concerns, initially met last July in the Piazzas’ backyard. Candy Ditkowski put up a Facebook page. A rallying email drew two dozen parents to a park shelter, where paranoia wafted in the summer breeze.

“No one knew each other, or who to trust,” recalled Ed Piazza. “Everyone was afraid. You say something, you might end up on this anonymous blog, called a heroin dealer or something.”

Shared concerns got momentum going. There were secret tapings by “rogue” board members of closed-door meetings and the take-no-prisoners anonymous blog. Parents said that teachers were stared down in hallways by friends of “rogue” members, or frightened into silence by the threat of lawsuits or grievances.

“You had Martha Kavanaugh,” said Piazza, “taking pictures of teachers’ license plates in the parking lot.”

Allegations that Stephenson family members and friends had harassed a teenage rape victim in and outside the courtroom – Balaya’s then-brother-in-law was subsequently convicted of the rape – underlined the character-and-tactics issue, despite the Stephensons’ denials.

Perceptions differ from person to person, reality can be viewed through conflicting prisms. But I think there is little doubt about who wore the black hats in a long-sleepy district that, when the “rogue” members gained power, was sucked into a vortex.

A turning point came, said Piazza, when attorney Dan Chiacchia had the “courage” to speak bluntly at a board meeting last fall, naming the “rogue” board members and supporters behind the various dramas.

“From that point on,” said Reagan, “people felt they could speak out and tell the truth ... Adults were being bullied, and why weren’t we stopping it?”

The parents’ group email chain swelled from 100 to 150 to more than 300. Attendance at monthly parent group meetings grew from a few dozen to hundreds. Concerned teachers, upset over the agendas and methods of the “rogue” element, arranged a meeting – through BOCES officials – with parents to find common ground.

“They told us they needed to know,” recalled Piazza, “that the parent group was behind them, if they talked about what was happening.”

Pushing transparency, the parents persuaded the district to record board meetings, posting the link on the group’s Facebook page.

“It wasn’t our own little group anymore,” said Beth Piazza. “It was the whole community.”

The four of them – strangers a year ago – sat Thursday in the Piazzas’ backyard, counting the changes: A widely trusted new superintendent, a rational board majority, a new board attorney, more than 300 now-engaged parents, Kavanaugh put on administrative leave, one “rogue” member gone and another facing possible expulsion.

Not bad, for less than a year’s work.

“It’s amazing,” said Piazza, “what this community has done.”

Democracy. It’s there, if you want it.


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