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CONTROVERSY OVER LETTER ENTERS FINAL STAGE

The dispute over whether the Orchard Park School Board president and vice president committed any improprieties in writing a letter to district residents -- and sending it at district expense -- has reached its final stage.

Debra Noonan, the Orchard Park resident who filed a "notice of petition" with the state Education Department alleging the mailing of the eight-page letter was improper, has filed her responses to the board's defense.

The letter was written by School Board President Richard McKenica and Vice President Ben Keller and sent to residents Dec. 5. The letter, authorized by a 4-3 board vote, defended McKenica in a hiring controversy and gave the pair's perspective on board issues and history. The case now goes to the Education Department's legal research department, where it could take months to complete. The state will then issue its decision.

In addition to the letter, the board also approved an investigation into leaks to the media and considered banning contact with the press without board approval. Both were action items that weren't on the agenda.

Mrs. Noonan also said that while McKenica denied there was any connection between an upcoming bond vote on Dec. 9 -- which passed overwhelmingly -- and the letter, the letter made mention of the vote.

"You can't write a letter using taxpayer funds that promotes voting in a particular way," said Mrs. Noonan. "It explicitly ties these matters in the opening paragraph."

Meanwhile, the letter has continued to have a life of its own at board meetings. McKenica issued a grudging apology for one statement in the letter in which he said Robert Rucker's facilities committee dissolved after seven months of work.

Rucker, whose committee was in existence less than three months before it was dissolved when the board decided to take over some of its duties, had demanded an apology at the previous board meeting and returned to ask McKenica to address it at the Jan. 19 meeting.

McKenica said the letter was written under tight deadlines and that he may have made a typo and written "seven" instead of "several." At Rucker's insistence, McKenica said he would put a correction in his "president's column" in an upcoming district bulletin.

McKenica then used his "president's column" before the meeting to berate board critics for lack of accuracy, defending the district as one of the best in Western New York and singling out a teacher who had criticized him at a previous meeting.

The teacher had referred to a newspaper story dealing with the McKenica Co., comparing its operations with how the school district is run. McKenica's family sold the McKenica Co. long before he joined the board; he is now involved with E.J. McKenica & Sons, also a manufacturing company.

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