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From the chaos in Hamburg, finally, comes the calm

It used to be when you looked up chaos in the dictionary, it said Hamburg Central School District.

In the past year:

• There was so much shouting at one School Board meeting that the gavel broke as it was pounded for order.

• The superintendent, who gained public sympathy and support after vandalism to his car, resigned in disgrace after admitting he drove the car into a wooden utility pole.

• The School Board threw a member off the board for official misconduct.

Today, the yelling has died down, opponents agree that the right man is in the superintendent’s office, and disagreements among adults seem to have been taken out of the schools.

“It has seemed like a lot longer than two years,” said Wendy Evenden, a mother who started attending School Board meetings about two years ago.

Residents have just started to breathe easier after two years of wondering what would happen next.

“I just think people got mentally and physically tired after a while,” said Vincent Coppola, who was Hamburg’s interim superintendent. “I can’t put my finger on it exactly. I think everybody realized we couldn’t stay the way we were.”

Many people point to Coppola as being responsible for starting the turnaround from several years of turmoil.

By 2013, the district already was a hotbed for controversy.

Then-Superintendent Steven Achramovitch abruptly announced his retirement, and the new board majority put him on administrative leave. The School Board then hired Richard Jetter as superintendent in March 2014, on a split vote.

Community meetings sponsored by one faction in the district were held. Targets of those meetings called them “hate” sessions. The meetings sparked interest in the community and brought hidden issues to the surface. Parents and other residents started attending board meetings and called for the removal of Member Catherine Schrauth Forcucci, Sally Stephenson and Stephenson’s daughter, Holly Balaya, from the board.

Hamburg attorney Daniel Chiacchia, a leader of a parents group, was not afraid of challenging the board members.

“Part of what we were trying to do is to stop certain people from having their own agendas,” he said. “Now that those agendas have been quashed, I think it let the board start focusing on the real job, which is making sure our school district is providing the best educational services they can.”

Relations on the board chilled as members of the minority and majority changed, and the board filed misconduct charges against Schrauth Forcucci in April 2014 on another split vote.

Less than a week later, Jetter said his car had been vandalized in a school parking lot, and at least one board member pointed to the Schrauth Forcucci camp as the culprit.

But after being questioned about it by The Buffalo News, Jetter confessed last July to Hamburg police that he had filed a false police report. Jetter, who was one of many district employees testifying against Schrauth Forcucci at the hearing to oust her, was placed on administrative leave until he resigned Oct. 1, 2014.

The hearing to remove Schrauth Forcucci lasted 45.5 hours over various dates from May until August. The final vote came in a six-hour meeting that started Sept. 2 and ended early the next morning.

Coppola was named acting superintendent on Aug. 21, and he started picking up the pieces of the fractured district, using his years of experience as a teacher, counselor, principal, administrator, superintendent and search consultant.

When a board member asked him a question, he made sure to let the rest of the board know what the question and answer were. He got the members training on how to act as a board and communicate with one another. He started sending emails to the entire staff. He showed up at sporting and other events.

“I felt it was important to treat every board member respectfully and civilly regardless of where they were coming from. I always felt everybody had to be treated the same,” Coppola said. “I think the staff was looking for some normalcy.”

Board President David Yoviene credits him for calming things down.

“He’s the one who scooped us all up,” Yoviene said. “He was able to right the ship.”

“I think things are pointed in the right direction,” Board Member Sally Stephenson said. “It started with Vince Coppola.”

Balaya left the board when her term was up last year, and Stephenson’s term ends June 30.

But unlike the frenzy surrounding the past several board elections, this year’s is fairly quiet, with four candidates running for three seats. Chiacchia and the parents group have endorsed three of them.

But the aftermath of the dysfunction remains, and part of the cost of the chaos can be seen in legal bills for the district. Hamburg spent $403,000 on legal expenses from January 2014 through January 2015, with the exception of November’s bills, which were not released when the district responded to a Freedom of Information Act request by The News.

The district spent $111,897 on the removal of Schrauth Forcucci. It would have been nearly $13,000 more, had the board president not negotiated a discount with the law firm, Hodgson Russ. The district also spent $43,144 on court action challenging Schrauth Forcucci’s removal, and $8,127 on Schrauth Forcucci’s appeal to the state education commissioner of her removal. Legal issues related to Jetter cost the district $26,254 to handle, and the district has spent $82,249 on issues connected with teacher Martha Kavanaugh, who was placed on administrative leave.

Yoviene said the money spent to remove Schrauth Forcucci was money well-spent.

“Was that the cost of harmony? I would say yes, that and a lot of hard work,” he said.

Yoviene, the board president, said what has changed since last year is there now is harmony on the board. The board unanimously approved bringing on Amherst Middle School Principal Michael Cornell as the new superintendent.

“We have a new superintendent. He’s pointing us in the right direction,” Stephenson said. “We don’t have the chaos of Rick Jetter anymore.”

“Certainly with the removal of Catherine, we were able to accomplish things and work together toward a common goal, where before it was always disruptions,” Yoviene said.

He also blamed the parents for being disruptive.

“They caused a lot of trouble at the meetings. Whether well-intended or not, they caused a lot of disharmony,” Yoviene said.

Children were scarce at board meetings a year ago, in large part because no one knew what might happen among the adults. But today, parents aren’t afraid to bring children to School Board meetings. At a recent board meeting, elementary students read stories they wrote in writers workshops, and the board has a child lead the Pledge of Allegiance at every meeting.

“It’s kind of funny; you go to meetings and it’s business, as it should be,” Evenden said.

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Hamburg School budget/candidates

Percent of budget from property taxes: 56 percent

Percent of budget from state aid: 33 percent

Candidates (Elect 3): Amy N. Brodfuehrer, Robbin D. List (i), Michael F. McGarry and Richard G. Schneider. Note: Elect two to two-year terms and one to a one-year term.

Total budget: $66,006,811, s 5.72 percent

Tax levy (total amount to be raised through property taxes): $36,974,654, s 5.83 percent

Tax levy increase allowed under tax cap: 5.83 percent

Estimated property tax rate per $1,000 of assessed value: $37.98 in Hamburg, s 6.71 percent*

Estimated taxes on $100,000 home (market value): $2,092*

Polls open: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Hamburg Central High School gym, 4111 Legion Drive.

* Estimated tax rates are based on the total taxable value and equalization rate.

Final tax rates are established in August.

email: bobrien@buffnews.com