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Dissecting discord in Williamsville schools

The school year started with discord in Williamsvillle. Hundreds of teachers gathered in an auditorium for their traditional opening day meeting, and Superintendent Scott Martzloff addressed a rift that had developed between him and the district’s unions.

His speech, marked by two references to “pitchforks and lanterns,” pushed back hard on what he called a “campaign of malicious disinformation” by union leaders. A few minutes in, he attempted a joke.

“Oh, and one other thing,” Martzloff told the teachers. “In reading thousands upon thousands of your emails over the last several months, it’s now obvious why I’ve been kept out of your fantasy football leagues, and I’m kind of hurt. Basketball, I can understand, but football?”

It fell flat. Over the summer, district employees had accused Martzloff of improperly accessing the district’s email system, a charge some felt was so serious they brought it to the attention of the Board of Education.

Martzloff’s speech seemed only to worsen the divide. Someone in the audience posted a seven-minute video of the remarks to YouTube, and it has since become an example of the fraught relationship between district leaders and staff representatives.

In the months since, many parents and community leaders have wondered: How did Williamsville Central Schools get here?

“We have never in the history of Williamsville – and what do I go back, 50 years? – had this type of discontent,” said Judith Katz, who served on the Williamsville Board of Education for 15 years. “My concern is for the students, because when there is this type of discontent, it has to carry over in the classroom.

The controversy came into public view in late August, when a series of widely circulated letters revealed that the unions that represent teachers and principals had pressed School Board members to bring in an independent investigator to examine complaints about Martzloff’s leadership, including that he had retaliated against staff and unfairly influenced hiring. But the troubled relationship between Martzloff and the unions started well before the start of the school year.

A towering figure

Martzloff came from a district that could hardly be more different from Williamsville when he was selected in 2011 to lead the region’s second-largest school district.

With just two years’ experience as a superintendent, Martzloff ran rural Byron-Bergen Central Schools, which spent a fifth of the money that Williamsville spent and had a tenth of the students.

By comparison, his predecessor, Howard Smith, had worked as superintendent in East Aurora for eight years before he was hired to lead Williamsville schools.

Martzloff had also climbed from job to job, never staying in one position for more than three years, including his days as a special education teacher. A towering figure even on the basketball court, the 7-foot1 Martzloff briefly played for the minor league Rochester RazorSharks in his 30s while working as a vice principal and had pursued a career in professional basketball after college.

Despite Martzloff’s short stint as a superintendent, his résumé had other experience the search committee liked. Martzloff had worked as an administrator in Rochester city schools for nine years and had been an assistant principal at Rush-Henrietta.

“He was a very strong candidate,” said William Freeman, a former School Board member who served as president when Martzloff was hired. “He seemed to have the leadership skills and the chemistry that would work well in Williamsville.”

That couldn’t be further than the way teachers, principals and administrators in Williamsville have publicly described Martzloff in recent months.

Union concerns

“Our concerns are about the superintendent’s lack of integrity, lack of honesty, his abuse of power and his retaliation against those who oppose him,” the leaders of the Williamsville Teachers Association wrote to Board of Education President Patricia Losito in August.

The letter, part of an exchange between Losito and members of the Teachers Association, ripped open a controversy that had simmered since Martzloff attempted to involuntarily transfer a teacher to another school in June.

Union leaders claim the move came after the teacher posted a negative comment on Facebook, but they said Martzloff gave other reasons for the move. Either way, union leaders said, it was a violation of their contract and out of step with the culture of the school district.

“There is no policy in the contract that says the superintendent can involuntarily transfer somebody at will,” said Williamsville Teachers Association President Michelle Licht.

Martzloff, who called the teacher transfers a “gray area” of the contract, disagreed. Facing a union grievance, however, he eventually moved the teacher back.

Both sides point to the attempted transfer as a turning point in the relationship between the superintendent and the teachers. “That was the point where all of a sudden, we had a list of so many concerns that we realized this was really a widespread problem,” Licht said. “That was when we realized it was not just a series of isolated incidents, but it was a pattern of behavior that really jeopardized the school district.”

The unions’ list of complaints eventually grew to 32 specific items, including some that date back to his first few weeks in Williamsville and others that began when he worked in Byron-Bergen and Rochester. Among the complaints are accusations that he sought special treatment for his own children, including requesting certain students be placed in one of his children’s classrooms and asking shortly after he arrived that another one of his children attend extra gym classes.

Martzloff, who responded to most of the union complaints in an interview with The News, said he would not discuss his family on the record because he did not want them involved in the dispute. But during the video of the opening day ceremony, he addressed the issue with teachers.

“Your union leadership is upset with me. They don’t like my leadership style, accused me of abusing power, and sadly bring my family into the matter by alleging that we sought special treatment for our children,” Martzloff told the teachers. “I would ask that you speak with any of your colleagues who have worked directly with my three children (and ask) whether they have ever met this person your union speaks of. It is not me, nor is it my wife.”

Emails accessed, official put on leave

Not long after the teacher transfer, union leaders learned that Martzloff had accessed the email system. They claim the superintendent did not follow typical district protocols – a point Martzloff disputes.

Teachers, principals and some administrators were so concerned about the email situation they brought it to the attention of the Board of Education. The board never took action on the matter.

“Members have at least a reasonable expectation that their supervisor is not reading their email just for the fun of it,” Licht said. “And we have no assurances of that because there are no checks and balances at this point.”

Martzloff, however, said he accessed the email system at the end of June in order to review “specific emails from a specific employee” and that he signed the proper paperwork through the local Board of Cooperative Educational Services when that was done.

“There are lots of superintendents all over New York State who have access to the email system,” Martzloff said. “You can’t use it as a way to spy on people and see what people are saying. You use it at an appropriate time for an appropriate investigation.”

A few weeks later, the controversy escalated when the Board of Education, on Martzloff’s recommendation, put the assistant superintendent for human resources, Kim Kirsch, on paid leave. The decision came a few weeks after Kirsch brought complaints about Martzloff to the Board of Education. She has since notified the district that she plans to sue.

“There’s no denying that, for many of us, her situation is one example that speaks to a lack of trust that many members have,” Williamsville Teachers Association First Vice President Sally Tripi said at a recent board meeting.

Questions about legal bills

Teachers and parents have also questioned why the Williamsville Board of Education in 2012 agreed to pay up to $25,000 of Martzloff’s legal bills for a lawsuit filed against the Byron-Bergen school district and Martzloff. Byron-Bergen’s insurance company refused to pay the bills, according to minutes of the vote.

The lawsuit, according to court documents, was brought by a former Byron-Bergen teacher who claims Martzloff failed to give him a “neutral” reference when he sought a new job. At the time, Martzloff was already superintendent of Williamsville – the reason, he said, Williamsville board members agreed to pay for his representation.

“It’s not unusual for the insurance for Byron-Bergen to not cover me because the allegation allegedly took place while I was the superintendent of Williamsville,” Martzloff said.

Many parents, have watched the recent controversy with confusion and dismay. Like others, Sue Szymendera grew up in Williamsville and now sends her children to a district in which she has tremendous pride. But lately, she said, it doesn’t feel the same. She would like to see the board conduct an independent investigation.

“We want to know, are these things true? Are they not true?” Szymendera said. “They won’t investigate.”

Brought sides together in Byron-Bergen

Board of Education members have rejected the call for an independent investigation into Martzloff, instead asking the two unions to meet directly with the superintendent to discuss their concerns.

Some who worked previously with Martzloff said they, too, have been confounded by the recent descriptions of his leadership.

Dan Bedette, who was president of the administrators union at Byron-Bergen when Martzloff was superintendent there, said he recalled a time when Martzloff sought to help teachers in the district by reversing a principal’s decision to move several teachers without enough notice. Bedette, as well as others, recalled Martzloff as instrumental in bringing together teachers, administrators and community leaders to develop a district strategic plan.

“I’ve seen other people try to accomplish that in districts, but he actually pulled together those groups for a meaningful mission statement,” Bedette said.

In Williamsville, whose students consistently outperform by several academic measures, the latest controversy is rare. Town Supervisor Barry Weinstein, who served on the board in the 1980s and ’90s, said he could not recall any similar challenge to a superintendent since the 1970s.

“This is uncharted territory,” Weinstein said.

Like others, Katz, the longtime board member who now represents Williamsville for Erie 1 BOCES, said many have been saddened by the discord.

“If you are determined to make it work and have good communication, then there usually is,” Katz said. “It has to be all sides that are willing to do that.”

email: djgee@buffnews.com