Once so positive, Hamburg school chief turned defensive as doubts grew over vandalism claim - The Buffalo News
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Once so positive, Hamburg school chief turned defensive as doubts grew over vandalism claim

“What do you think of me?” Richard E. Jetter asked during a 27-minute phone interview with The Buffalo News. “What kind of a job do you think I’m doing?”

Two weeks ago, The News confronted Jetter, the Hamburg Central School District superintendent, about the damage to his car that he reported as an act of vandalism May 6.

The News told Jetter a witness had surfaced who saw a man driving what appeared to be Jetter’s white Nissan Maxima hit a pole while visiting a fellow administrator in South Buffalo the night before.

Jetter vehemently denied to The News in the July 11 interview that he had anything to do with the damage.

“That’s ridiculous,” he told The News. “That’s absolutely ridiculous.”

He said he would sue the paper if it ran a story that even suggested he had damaged his own car or filed a false police report.

But last Monday, as The News pursued its investigation and School Board members looked into the allegations, Jetter drove to the Village of Hamburg Police Department and admitted that he did, indeed, strike a utility pole outside the house of the administrator in Buffalo. Police charged Jetter with falsely reporting an incident, a misdemeanor.

The Hamburg Central School Board placed him on paid administrative leave as it conducts its own investigation.

Jetter, 39, who holds a doctorate from the University at Buffalo, was named superintendent four months ago during a turbulent time for the suburban school district. It was the high point in his still-young career. Hamburg schools have long enjoyed a top-tier reputation in the region and draw about 3,700 students from the Village of Hamburg as well as the towns of Hamburg, Boston, Eden and Orchard Park.

The School Board named Jetter interim superintendent last July after the previous superintendent announced his retirement and then was put on leave. The board conducted a search for a permanent superintendent, and Jetter won the $164,000-a-year job. Many hoped he would bring order to the chaos-stricken board.

Rally follows damage

On May 6, as the board moved forward with plans for a misconduct hearing against Catherine Schrauth Forcucci, a School Board member, The News covered a sparsely-attended budget hearing held at Union Pleasant Elementary School.

Board members, administrators and several members of the public headed for the parking lot after the hearing. Soon they were staring at the side of Jetter’s white Nissan Maxima, which had a dent and scrape on the driver’s side door. As each person rounded the car for the first time and saw the damage, they were surprised, and then shocked when Jetter showed a folded up note he had taken from under the windshield wiper.

“Watch your back, you (expletive) sleezebag,” was typed on the 8.5-inch-by-11-inch white paper.

Jetter, a former English teacher, showed the note to The News, and he noted “sleezebag” was misspelled.

He swore once or twice, and board members joked with a reporter that the comment was off the record. He also indicated he would not want to move his children into the district after being threatened like that.

Word of the supposed vandalism spread quickly throughout the community, and teachers planned a rally to support Jetter. The next afternoon, teachers and parents gathered on the lawn of the administration building on Abbott Road, where they rang a cow bell and carried signs of support. Television news crews and newspaper photographers and reporters milled among the crowd, interviewing people. Then Jetter emerged from the side of the brick building to cheers.

“They can bust up my car, but they’re not going to break us,” Jetter told the gathering.

It seemed the chaos in Hamburg had finally crossed the line and the community was ready for it to end.

Doubts over damage

Images made from that day show Jetter smiling as he talked to the crowd. He also backed his car into the small lot so the paint scrape and dent with a brown streak in it were easily visible to photographers, who took photos and video of the car.

A man saw one of the photos in The News the following day and recognized the vehicle.

The man told an investigator hired by Schrauth Forcucci’s lawyer that he saw a man who was visiting a South Buffalo woman on May 5 hit a utility pole. The driver was trying to back up into a driveway in what he believed was the same car he saw pictured in the newspaper. He confirmed his account to The News.

The same images of the damaged car were later shown to collision experts, who said damage like that occurs when a car strikes a pole, not when one vehicle strikes another one.

On July 11, The News contacted Jetter to ask him about the witness’ account and the opinions from the collision experts.

Turning defensive

Jetter called back and immediately denied he had played any role in the damage to his car.

He went on to express a range of thoughts and emotions during the phone interview, growing angry and defiant at times.

“This has affected my family,” he said at one point during the July 11 interview.

Jetter is well known for his positive attitude. He promoted an “Energy Bus” campaign which stemmed from the book “The Energy Bus: 10 Rules to Fuel Your Life, Work, and Team with Positive Energy” by Jon Gordon.

The superintendent’s section on the district website features children’s drawings and signs made by students and faculty depicting bright yellow “energy” school buses. Jetter also posted a playlist with links to 38 “songs to make you happy,” among them Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” and “Everything is Awesome,” by Tegan and Sara from “The Lego Movie” soundtrack.

Despite his positive energy, the fighting and bitterness in the district continued. Jetter played a key role in misconduct charges laid against Schrauth Forcucci, the School Board member, which could lead to her removal from the board.

“I really work hard to have a good career,” he told The News.

Jetter told The News that he was a target for those who wanted to intimidate him.

He also described attacks against him and his family that were posted on blogs.

Jetter complained about the lack of support he had received as the district’s leader.

“No one’s helping me,” he said. “I’ve got the support of my wife and family. The media doesn’t help me.”

He made no mention of the parent group that had supported him and worked to remove several board members.

He also said he was upset that two people from his former district, North Tonawanda, had attended a hearing about Schrauth Forcucci. He accused them of trying to disrupt the hearing.

Not ‘a little lie’

According to a district source, Jetter on Monday was admitted to BryLin Hospital, which treats patients for depression and addictions.

The district’s law firm, Hodgson Russ, will interview at least two school administrators as part of the district’s investigation, including the one who was with the superintendent the evening he sideswiped the pole.

The other one was in the parking lot when the damage and note were discovered.

Questions have also arisen over reimbursements related to the insurance deductible for repairing the damaged car and renting a replacement vehicle, a district source said.

District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III would not comment on whether his office is looking into more charges against Jetter.

Schrauth Forcucci’s hearing, it appears, will continue without Jetter, who was a main witness against the School Board member. She is accused of berating and/or verbally attacking Jetter, as well as the board president and several school officials.

Some board members seemed angry and others seemed exasperated with Schrauth Forcucci at last week’s special meeting to place the superintendent on leave.

But Margaret Murphy, who is Schrauth Forcucci’s lawyer, hopes board members will reconsider Jetter’s testimony “now that they know he lied to them, and not just a little lie.”

Murphy said several of the charges hinge on what transpired between Schrauth Forcucci and Jetter when no one else was around.

“I hope they have to start questioning everything he said,” Murphy said, “knowing he was able to convince them of his truthfulness.”

Before his admission to village police about the false vandalism report, Jetter told The News about his unhappiness at work.

At one point, he said, “This job is no longer worth it.”

Even before he was put on leave, he lamented about what he would do in the future.

He asked: “Who is going to hire the Hamburg superintendent?”

email: bobrien@buffnews.com

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