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Williamsville teachers union, superintendent make peace after 3 years of turmoil

The union representing Williamsville Central School District teachers and Superintendent Scott Martzloff are publicly trying to make peace after three years of lawsuits and acrimony.

All outward signs indicate a thawing in the icy relationship between the two sides that has plagued the district since a top human resources administrator was suspended in 2014 then fired in June.

When the dispute first erupted publicly in 2014, the Williamsville Teachers Association accused Martzloff of favoritism, a "pattern of intimidation and retaliation" and "abuse of power." The union voted no confidence in the superintendent and called for an "independent investigation" into his actions.

Now, union leaders talk of "the process of healing" and describe Martzloff as "genuine" and "forthcoming." A website where the teachers union itemized their litany of grievances – – has been taken down. Meanwhile, Martzloff talks of moving forward "in a positive fashion together."

The discord is dissipating in Western New York's largest suburban school district.

Just before the new school year began, Martzloff, members of the union's Executive Board and four School Board members met for nearly four hours on Aug. 31 to clear the air, all sides say.

The meeting was "an effort to address the concerns of all parties present and begin the process of moving the district forward after three years that were a great challenge to our district," said WTA President Michelle Licht.

It was the first time the sides met to discuss their friction since a hearing officer in June recommended the firing of former Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Kim A. Kirsch. The hearing officer found that Kirsch colluded with the teachers union in an effort to undermine and oust Martzloff. Kirsch was found guilty of insubordination, misconduct and other charges while the charges against Martzloff were ruled unfounded.

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Licht described the tenor of the Aug. 31 meeting as tense at first.

"A lot of us were nervous about how it was going to go," she said. "But at the end of the meeting it felt collaborative. It felt like we were ready as a group to take steps forward."

Asked for a specific example, Licht pointed to Martzloff's accessing of the district email system in June 2014 to read some employees' emails while investigating the Kirsch matter. Union leaders said it was inappropriate and unauthorized, which Martzloff disputed.

Martzloff explained at the meeting that he granted himself access through the proper channels, which was not unusual or an invasion of privacy. He also clarified that no one currently has access to the system, although he reserved the authority to do so.

"But I'm not going to unless there's a situation that comes up that demonstrates a need to do so," he said.

Martzloff's explanation on that issue reassured members of the union's executive board, Licht said. All sides left with a clear understanding of how issues would be handled going forward, she said.

Teachers were also encouraged by Martzloff's annual opening day speech, made days earlier to district staff on Aug. 29.

Whereas in the 2014 speech Martzloff pushed back hard on what he called a “campaign of malicious disinformation” by union leaders, in this year's speech he struck a conciliatory tone. Although cleared by the hearing officer of retaliating against Kirsch, Martzloff acknowledged he may have done some things differently in retrospect, if given the chance.

“It doesn’t mean there aren’t things I wouldn’t go back and do differently, and I want you to know that,” he told the crowd. “I think we’ve all learned a great deal from this experience.”

Licht said that was a message a lot of her union's members 900 members wanted to hear from him.

And in one more sign that the page has turned on this chapter in the district's history, the School Board on Tuesday appointed Kirsch's permanent replacement, John E. McKenna, the principal for 22 years at Fletcher Elementary School in the Tonawanda City School District. His appointment is effective Nov. 1 and he will earn $165,000 a year.

"He's someone with tremendous experience as an educator, a real leader in Western New York. We're excited to have him on our team," Martzloff said.

While the Kirsch hearing was ongoing over two years, human resources duties had been handled by a former elementary school principal, Larry Militello, who was appointed acting assistant superintendent of human resources in September 2014. He retired July 6, 2017, but has continued working in the role on a per-diem basis.

Kirsch continued to earn her nearly $170,000-a-year salary after being placed on leave in August 2014 until June, when her termination was upheld. The disciplinary hearing cost the district an estimated $500,000 in legal fees, Martzloff said in June.

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The teachers union's contract expired Aug. 31 but Licht said repairing relations with Martzloff is not an effort to help her cause in negotiations.

"As a leadership team, the WTA has been very careful to keep the two issues separate," she said. "We have not drawn any connections between our concerns with Dr. Martzloff and the contract."

Martzloff, who became superintendent in 2011, would not comment other than to say that the district continues to negotiate with the teachers union "in good faith."

Both sides pledged to meet again before the end of this year.

"The general feeling is we've had enough of this political dysfunction and we want to move forward together in partnership and collaboration," Martzloff said. "Everybody's on the same page with that."

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