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Coppola thinks Hamburg School District is ready to turn corner

Vincent J. Coppola can envision some sleepless nights when he takes over the superintendent’s job in the Hamburg Central School District.

But it’s not the chaos on the board and community the past four years that will give him pause. It’s the thing that all superintendents in 2014 worry about: keeping staff and students safe and secure.

“The thing that will keep me awake at night is not my concern about getting the board to work together as a team. I’m confident this board, as is presently constituted, will do everything in its power to function as a team,” said Coppola, a former teacher, principal and superintendent who is an education consultant.

The School Board is expected to name Coppola, 77, as acting superintendent during a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. today in the administration building. The contract is to run from Monday to Jan. 31, Coppola said. He will be paid per diem, not to exceed a total of $69,000, and will not receive benefits.

He said he will discuss with the board when to start a search for a permanent superintendent, but he did not rule out looking this fall and getting someone on board by February. He said staff members need to know who will be leading them.

“I think the staff have been hurt by what has happened. They had a confidence and a good rapport with Dr. Jetter, and I think this just was like a kick in the stomach for them,” Coppola said.

Coppola will take over from Colleen Kaney, the novice assistant superintendent of student services, curriculum and instruction who was named acting superintendent July 23 after the board placed Superintendent Richard E. Jetter on a paid leave of absence.

Jetter confessed to Hamburg Village Police that he, not vandals, had damaged his car, and he was charged with falsely reporting an incident. The School Board is seeking his resignation.

Taking the reins in the midst of controversy is a situation North Collins Superintendent Joan Thomas faced when she was named interim superintendent at Orchard Park in 2005. The district had undergone a rocky time when many administrators left the district, and the previous superintendent was put on leave after information surfaced that calls to sex chat lines and escort services were made on his district-issued cell phone.

“It’s got to be someone the board and the community trust, and I think Dr. Coppola is absolutely someone the board and community can trust,” Thomas said. “Secondly, he’s a known commodity. He’s a veteran administrator. He certainly has been through many difficult and challenging situations.”

Paul G. Hashem, who was superintendent in Lackawanna and the interim in Springville Griffith Institute, Grand Island and Frontier school districts, said Coppola is a great choice for Hamburg.

“The first thing he’s got to do is get everybody together to turn down the temperature in the district,” Hashem said. “It will take a strong personality, someone who has some foresight and some ability to get people to work together no matter what.”

The last year has seen a continuation of fractured relations on the School Board and in the community, where a group of parents has called for the removal of several board members.

The School Board completed a misconduct hearing against one of its own members, Catherine Schrauth Forcucci, on Aug. 9.

It is waiting for a report from the hearing officer before deciding whether she should be removed from the board. Coppola said the charges must run their course, and it is out of his hands.

In addition to the unsettled board and community, the teachers and clerks are without contracts, the district is grappling with the loss of millions of dollars in state aid over the past several years, and there is a hefty anti-testing, anti-Common Core sentiment in the community that led parents of hundreds of students to keep them home on the days state tests were administered.

Coppola is to start Monday, the week before school starts, and one of his first jobs will be to meet with administrators to make sure everything is on track for the opening of school.

“That’s a high priority right now,” he said.

So is meeting with board members, faculty, staff, union representatives, parents and community members.

He also wants to:

• Establish district goals.

• Visit all the schools, probably in the second week of school.

• Review budgets from the last three years.

• Review state report card data on the district.

• Plan a board retreat to discuss how to work together.

• Talk about the importance of civility and respect.

Coppola said board members know how important it is for Hamburg to turn the corner.

“They know how everybody is watching the district,” he said. “We need to find a way to get out of some of the chaos.”