It’s like the happy end of a disaster movie in the Hamburg School District. The sun is shining, children are playing … the only evidence of the tornado that wrecked the district is the hundreds of thousands of dollars it ran up in legal expenses. Under the circumstances, the money appears to have been well spent, but it sure would have been nice to have avoided the circumstances in the first place.
Still, following the sage advice to be grateful for small favors, this is a large favor. The district appears to be functioning today as a school district should, to the benefit of taxpayers, employees and students.
It didn’t always seem as though that would be possible. Hamburg had become at least as dysfunctional as the Buffalo School District and was, in some ways, worse. Buffalo has had problems with its superintendents, but none of them damaged his own car, filed a false police report and then blamed his political opponents for the damage.
That’s what former Hamburg Superintendent Richard Jetter did and he was just part of the maelstrom that enveloped the district for almost two years. And that wasn’t even the beginning of Jetter’s role in the district’s implosion. It began with his hiring, after the abrupt retirement of the previous superintendent, Steven Abramovitch, whom the new board majority placed on administrative leave. The decision to hire Jetter also split the board, which was its own rolling disaster.
Meetings were characterized by so much shouting that, at one of them, the gavel broke from the abuse it was forced to absorb.
The board spent months of time and thousands of dollars to remove one of its most disruptive members, Catherine Schrauth Forcucci, for official misconduct. That was a soap opera in itself, and an expensive one at that. The initial effort cost $111,897, and even that figure was discounted by $13,000. But that wasn’t all, because legal fees rose another $51,000 as the removal issue moved into the courts. Getting rid of Jetter cost another $26,254 in lawyer bills.
Yet, as anyone who has faced a messy but necessary divorce knows, the only way to get past some problems is to take the necessary steps to end them. It’s hard to see how the district could have returned to some version of normal without having rid itself of Jetter and Schrauth Forcucci and that was going to cost.
But it’s not just the School Board that is liable for this mess. Voters put the School Board in place and, in the end, enabled the destruction it wrought on a district it was supposed to lead. While voters might reasonably have expected that the board would nonetheless rise to the occasion of its empowerment, it didn’t happen.
But that was then. Voters are slowly putting in place a new board, one that does seem focused in the important task of educating Hamburg’s children. The acting superintendent, Vincent Coppola, did yeoman work in calming the disturbances that were tearing the district apart.
It helped, no doubt, that Coppola’s background included experience as a teacher, counselor, principal, administrator, superintendent and search consultant. He made sure the entire board knew about questions asked by members and the answers he provided. He saw that board members were trained on how to function as a board, not something that everyone knows when elected to such a position. He reached out to staff. He showed up at sporting and other events. In short, he behaved like a leader. He showed the way.
Now, things seem to be moving in a hopeful direction. The budget was approved Tuesday with little fanfare. One other disruptive member of the board left last year and yet another’s term ends next month. A new superintendent has been hired with the unanimous vote of the School Board. That appears to be a sound decision, as long as unanimity doesn’t come at the price of open, public questioning. It is possible to move too far in the other direction.
Nevertheless, it is a relief to see that Hamburg is putting a destructive couple of years behind it. Board members will have to work hard to keep the district moving in that direction, and members of other school boards should take note. There are lessons to learn from Hamburg’s ordeal.