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Newfane school superintendent will retire in August ; Pogorzelski hailed as district 'healer,' compassionate leader

School Superintendent Gary Pogorzelski, beloved by many as the district's "healer" of the past four years, is polishing off his last school year to spend more time with his family and focus on volunteer work.

After 36 years as an educator, Pogorzelski will retire Aug. 31.

"It's time to be a grandpa," he said. "It's time to spend more time with my children. It's time to pay more attention to my own health and go on to the next adventure."

Pogorzelski replaced James Mills as superintendent in January 2007, after almost a decade as first the district's special education director, and then its middle school principal. He brought 20 years of classroom experience with him, mostly in special education.

He spent the beginning of his superintendent tenure sorting through an incriminating audit by the state comptroller that revealed wrongdoing on the part of some former board members and questioned the former superintendent's whole life insurance policy, which cost taxpayers $415,000 over a 12-year period.

Most of his colleagues agree when Pogorzelski calls himself "a softy," but he said this is one area where he was firm and responded in an appropriate and professional manner.

"It took a lot of energy," he said. "In some cases it took money. But every one of those issues that they pointed out we addressed, and then they accepted our responses. We moved on."

Many will miss Pogorzelski.

"It's hard to see Gary leave," said Donna Pieszala, former president of the School Board, now in her last term. "Our district needed a healer and a compassionate leader. We had that in Gary."

Pogorzelski, 58, grew up in the Riverside section of Buffalo, where he said life was tough and sometimes violent. He joined a gang, he said, because back then that was the only way to survive. Those experiences, and his father's strong hand, drew him to a career of educating and caring for children.

"I wanted to help people," he said. "I wanted to help kids. It's been very rewarding. When I look back, I'm pretty happy with some of things we accomplished over the last three-and-a-half years."

Ushering the district through a $7.2 million capital project was the most rigorous of the board's accomplishments during his tenure.

The project brought the district's school buildings up to code. New fire alarms were installed, as well as more energy-efficient heating and cooling systems.

"We fixed the place up," he said. "It's good for the kids."

Pogorzelski spearheaded major technology updates throughout the district, including the purchase of new computers.

He led the district through four budget processes without an increase to the tax rate.

The district now must replace him.

The School Board has begun accepting applications through Aug. 13. Community members helped draft a list of desired qualities. Experience as a teacher and superintendent is preferable.

"Gary's done a great job of healing us, and now we're looking for a person to lead us into the 21st century in a strong way under adverse conditions," said board member Gretchen DeWitt."We're looking for that person that's perfect, and that's what's going to be the hard part, because you can't be everything to everybody."

Semifinalists will be chosen by Aug. 16, and finalists will be interviewed through Sept. 16 in hopes of taking over the position sometime in October.

Colleagues said Pogorzelski will be greatly missed and always remembered for treating the students like they were his own children.

"You never want to have a kid dig a hole so deep that they can't get out," said Tom Adams, current middle school principal . "I really think he lived that. He felt our school, our entire district, was a place where kids could grow and make mistakes. They could learn, get help and get support, and they could do it at school."

e-mail: niagaranews@buffnews.com

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