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Buffalo schools probing alleged misuse of $22,000 at McKinley

Crystal Boling-Barton ruled over McKinley High School as principal for more than 30 years, until last May when she was placed on paid administrative leave amid a federal lawsuit accusing her of stonewalling attempts to create an after-school club for gay students.

The school district settled the lawsuit in September, but Barton has remained on leave.

Why was unclear – until Thursday.

Buffalo school officials are investigating the alleged misuse of $22,000 during Barton’s tenure at McKinley, the school district’s attorney revealed during a hearing Thursday in State Supreme Court.

Barton filed a motion with the court seeking her immediate reinstatement as McKinley principal, but the district’s attorney argued her leave has continued because of this subsequent investigation.

Supreme Court Justice Diane Y. Devlin sided with the school district and denied Barton’s motion for reinstatement.

“This is a voluminous, time-consuming investigation where many district resources are being utilized,” said Nathaniel Kuzma, general counsel for the Buffalo Public Schools. “We will be deliberate in conducting an expeditious investigation.

“I want to be clear these are allegations at this time,” Kuzma said outside the courtroom, “and the intent is to gather facts so we may reach a conclusion as to whether they have merit.”

Barton’s attorney, Robert Boreanaz, said he will appeal the judge’s decision.

He also said these new allegations against Barton are completely unfounded and it was irresponsible for the school district to bring them up in open court.

“One thousand percent she did not use district funds for anything other than education purposes,” Boreanaz said outside the courtroom.

The allegations center around African-American artifacts Barton purchased for the school over the years using student activity funds.

“The funny part about these allegations is the superintendent and education leaders for the past decade or more have been at McKinley High School, where they viewed and marveled at the collection of African-American history, artifacts and memorabilia for an African history celebration that occurs at the school on an annual basis,” Boreanaz said.

“After they pulled Mrs. Barton out of her office, they rummaged through her documents and the allegation was not that she wasn’t entitled to purchase these things, but they didn’t have the proper paperwork,” Boreanaz said. “Now that allegation is completely false. She did submit the proper paperwork. Every single year that paperwork is reviewed and audited by a district representative and never found to be deficient.”

Barton, her attorney said, also has been able to recover duplicate receipts for every purchase and has turned those over to the district.

However, Kuzma pointed out in court that most of the artifacts are not in the district’s possession and are locked in an off-site storage facility accessed only by Barton.

He said this investigation was separate from the discrimination probe at McKinley concerning the formation of a Gay-Straight Alliance  and came to light after an internal audit.

It’s just the latest controversy surrounding Barton, principal at the high school on Elmwood Avenue since 1987.

Nearly a decade ago, a special investigator found that Barton was the driving force in an “excessive” seven-week suspension given to a student who denounced the principal for firing an assistant girls basketball coach. The issue caused a local media uproar because it forced the student to miss most of her senior basketball season.

Barton even tried unsuccessfully to get the state to remove a School Board member who was trying to hold her accountable.

In May, Barton was placed on administrative leave, after a lawsuit was filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a McKinley student, who alleged Barton was behind a pattern of discriminatory actions against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. Those allegations included preventing students from forming a Gay-Straight Alliance, an after-school club for students, and warning students against bringing same-sex dates to the prom.

The district settled the lawsuit in September when it agreed to maintain the after-school club and provide anti-discrimination training for staff and students.

Barton, meanwhile, has remained on paid leave, collecting roughly $100,000 in salary since being suspended last May, according to school district officials.

In court on Thursday, Boreanaz argued that Barton, who is also president of the administrators' union, has been suspended well past the time limitations set forth under state education law.

He called these latest allegations against her a “witch hunt.”

Boreanaz, for example, produced emails between the school district’s former attorney and lawyers from the NYCLU that showed Superintendent Kriner Cash knew about the allegations of discrimination at McKinley nine months prior to the NYCLU filing its lawsuit.

In one email exchange, the attorney from the NYCLU asked what the district was doing about the situation and indicated it would file a formal complaint.

“Off the record,” responded Ed Betz, former general counsel for the school district, “filing a complaint might be helpful. Let me address this with the superintendent again.”

Kuzma explained in court that the email response was not targeting Barton, but that the district takes allegations against its employees seriously and a formal complaint would be the appropriate mechanism to trigger any investigation.

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