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Williamsville schools, after 3 years of turmoil, vote to accept decision on Kirsch

When Scott Martzloff took over as superintendent of the Williamsville schools in 2011, he did things differently than his predecessor.

He brought in a handpicked candidate for principal from the school district he previously had overseen, for example, eschewing the district's traditional hiring process of involving teachers and students.

That didn't sit well with one of his assistant superintendents, Kim A. Kirsch, who had been with the district since 2007 and offered advice to the "New Sheriff in Town" about "how things were done in Williamsville," according to a decision by hearing officer John T. Trela that called for her firing.

When Martzloff didn't take her advice, she "actively took a hostile position" and orchestrated resistance and a campaign against Martzloff in 2014, according to the decision, which found her guilty Monday of insubordination, misconduct and other charges after after nearly three years on paid administrative leave.

"Upon testimony and evidence submitted into the record, Dr. Kirsch was upset at this 'change' and became a 'gatekeeper' of sorts of this movement against the Superintendent with others," hearing officer Trela stated in the decision. "A list of these concerns was compiled, and she was 'the glue' in the fabric in keeping this movement going forward."

Kirsch has earned her nearly $170,000-a-year salary since being placed on leave in August 2014, Martzloff confirmed Tuesday.

He estimated the district's legal bills for the hearing at $500,000. In addition, the district has been paying an interim assistant superintendent for human resources the same salary and kept a position vacant to make up for the expenditure, he said.

The decision was accepted in a unanimous vote by the Williamsville Board of Education Tuesday night at its regular meeting. The termination will be effective Wednesday, Martzloff has said.

"It's quite a relief for the board, and I believe for the community in general, to get to this point," said School Board President Toni Vazquez. "It's been a long time coming and we were very happy that a decision has finally been made."

Two board members – Suzanne Van Sice and Teresa Anne Leatherbarrow – said they were only voting to implement the ruling because it's required by state education law and not because they agreed with the decision.

In a brief statement before the vote, Martzloff said he hoped the district could move past the internal issues that have dogged it for the last three years.

"It is my fervent desire that this strongly-worded decision will close the matter on issues identified by the hearing officer as frivolous and that as a school community we can continue to keep our focus where it belongs, on the wonderful students and families of our district," he said.

The case has roiled the district for years and further opened a chasm between Martzloff and the district's teachers union.

The 140-page decision, released Tuesday by the district, is overwhelmingly critical of Kirsch's actions as the district's assistant superintendent for human resources. It paints a picture of an employee who pushed back against a new boss' way of doing things, and actively sought to undermine him.

Williamsville school district given OK for firing of assistant superintendent

Kirsch worked mainly with the teachers' union to try to get Martzloff ousted through a contract buyout offer from the School Board, Trela concluded.

"Dr. Kirsch clearly recognized and understood in her discussions with the President of the Teachers Union that her actions could be viewed as 'insubordination,'" Trela wrote.

The Trela decision quotes from a June 2014 email from Kirsch to Williamsville Teachers Association President Michelle Licht in which Kirsch wrote, "Evidently it is possible that our discussions could be viewed as insubordination - so we should probably not share them with others as much as possible."

Licht declined to comment Tuesday.

The decision also absolves Martzloff of any wrongdoing, concluding any decisions he made regarding teacher hiring or other issues were well within his rights as district chief. On Monday he told The Buffalo News he felt "vindicated" by the decision.

"There is no evidence or proof submitted into the record that the Superintendent broke any laws, and it is clear that many of the 'concerns' complained of fell well within his authority to do as the Chief School Administrator, and was outside of the authority of the three interest groups who were meeting over these complaints," Trela wrote in the decision.

In a tweet Tuesday, Martzloff said, "Thank you everyone for your immense patience and support through this process. It is time to move forward and collaborate for our students!"

In an interview Tuesday, Martzloff said "a dark cloud" had been lifted from the district, the largest suburban school district in Erie County, and called the termination and subsequent hearing a "manufactured crisis."

Some other takeaways from the Trela decision:

  • On June 30, 2014, Martzloff was notified by the board president, Patricia Losito, that "he was being undermined by someone in his leadership ranks. At that time, the Superintendent had no idea that this was going on," the decision stated. Kirsch and others were compiling a list of complaints against him.
  • Trela said it was "very telling and significant" that Kirsch's personal secretary and the department's payroll supervisor retired early "seemingly to escape her wrath" and were rehired after Kirsch was put on leave and brought up on charges.
  • Kirsch shared confidential information with a union president and others, and organized a meeting whose purpose was establishing grounds for removal of the superintendent.

The School Board in late 2014 backed Martzloff and found accusations against him baseless. But, Martzloff has been embattled for several years as the case dragged on, and as of July 1 will report to a School Board of nine members who were all endorsed by the teachers union who opposed Kirsch's firing.

He said union endorsements introduce "a challenge" to his relationship with School Board members, but that the hearing officer's decision represents a chance to renew a commitment to work together collaboratively.

"I try to work with whoever is on the School Board," he said. "It's my job to try to work with them to the best of my ability."

Ultimately, the hearing officer found that what Kirsch considered "retaliation" for her role as a "whistleblower" was actually disciplinary action imposed on an insubordinate employee. Trela repeatedly points out that Martzloff is accountable only to the School Board, and concludes there is no way Kirsch could work collaboratively with Martzloff again.

"The bottom line is that the Superintendent is monitored by the Board of Education and only the Board in its authority has standing over whether the Superintendent is doing things correctly or not," he wrote.

Kirsch's attorney, Michael A. Starvaggi, late Tuesday said Kirsch will pursue an appeal in court and faulted the decision for being "out of step" with state education law and disciplinary proceedings.

"He just flat out got it wrong," he said. "We're not done. We're going to pursue all the legal recourse that we can."

As the district's Title IX officer and second-in-command, Kirsch had a duty to act on growing concerns raised about the superintendent who then retaliated against her by firing her, Starvaggi said.

"A lot of people dumped their concerns in Dr. Kirsch's lap," he said. "This hearing officer somehow was unable to see that, but we are confident that somebody will."

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