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Niagara Wheatfield hires counsel in contract dispute

The Niagara Wheatfield School Board retained legal counsel Wednesday to fight a lawsuit brought by its own school superintendent.

During the meeting in which discussions on a number of topics became heated and loud, the members voted to authorize Harris Beach, its legal representative, to defend the board against an action brought by Superintendent Carl Militello "regarding the term of his employment contract." According to board member Christopher Peters, Militello brought the action last week through the state Department of Education.

Peters said after the meeting that the board is questioning an action taken at the June 11 meeting by the previous board that included several lame duck members. That board voted to approve a contract extension of one year to 2016. Peters said the action really added 11 new items to the agreement with Militello.

"In essence, it's a whole new contract," he said.

Peters along with three other members, including president Steve Sabo, took office on July 1 and could not vote on the pact, which pays Militello about $159,600 a year and includes a voluntary 3 percent cut.

Another new member, Richard Halleen, said he was surprised to see that the 90-page action by the superintendent included supportive affidavits from some current board members. Member Kristin MacKenzie, who, with Kathy Fleming, was one of the members who voted on the contract, said, "That's right."

New member David Breier apologized to the public and asked them to "help us through this" in a voice that became loud at times.

"Everybody has a lawyer, so we can't talk," Breier said, noting that he ran on a platform of transparency. "I wish we could talk in front of you -- I can't sit here any longer and say nothing."

He said it was unfair that the important issues are frequently handled in executive session and when the board reconvenes "at 11:30 [p.m.]," the public is gone.

Board president Sabo cautioned any administrator or employee to stop using district-funded materials or time as well as use of district fax machines in connection with the suit. Militello said he would look into it. Fleming added that calls from district staff to board members during the work day also needed to be stopped.

"This is not your board -- it's not the tail wagging the dog," Peters told Militello.

His remarks were greeted by applause from the small crowd, many of whom were teachers and parents.

Militello, who was hired in 2008, did not comment publicly on the matter.