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Hearing begins for Williamsville schools administrator

New details of a deep divide among the leadership of the Williamsville Central Schools publicly unfolded Thursday as attorneys for the district began to present their case that an assistant superintendent had poorly managed her department, forwarded confidential email to herself and failed to heed the directives of the superintendent.

The superintendent and the Board of Education want to fire Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Kim A. Kirsch for charges that include insubordination and misconduct after placing her on paid leave before the school year began.

Kirsch’s attorney claims the investigation against her was little more than a “witch hunt” intended to oust a top-level manager of the school district after she brought complaints about the superintendent to the Board of Education.

Opening statements in a lengthy public hearing to determine whether the district can fire Kirsch painted two starkly different portraits of the assistant superintendent.

“Make no mistake about it. We are here because Kim Kirsch was either unwilling or unable to do her job,” said Matthew C. Van Vessem, an attorney representing Williamsville Schools. “We are here because Kim Kirsch refused to accept the direction of the superintendent of schools. We are here because Kim Kirsch sought to substitute her judgment for that of the superintendent.”

Van Vessem described Kirsch as a highly paid administrator who failed to address problems within the district’s human resources department and who overstepped her bounds as an assistant superintendent by failing to follow the leadership of Superintendent Scott Martzloff.

But an attorney for Kirsch, Michael A. Starvaggi, described her as a “moral compass” who had never received even a warning about the quality of her work and who sought out advice from school district’s attorneys on how to deal with controversial complaints she heard about the superintendent. He told a hearing officer there was “no substance” behind the district’s charges against Kirsch.

“Dr. Kirsch has literally done nothing that rises anywhere near the level of actionable misconduct,” Starvaggi said. “This case is retaliation plain and simple. It is a travesty and it is an utter waste of taxpayer money.” Under state education law, the district must prove its case against Kirsch, a tenured employee, before school officials can fire her. The district has brought five charges against her, including incompetence, misconduct, neglect of duty, insubordination and conduct unbecoming of an assistant superintendent, Hearing Officer Paul Caffera said.

Van Vessem said the district plans to show evidence that Kirsch sought to undermine or thwart Martzloff’s goals and objectives, that she forwarded confidential communication to her personal email account and that there was friction and discontent within her department. He said Martzloff had become increasingly concerned about her management of the district’s human resources department in his first two years leading the district.

“Tenure does not mean that you can become your own boss, and decide for yourself what is right, what’s important,” Van Vessem said, “pick and choose what tasks to perform, what tasks to neglect.”

But Starvaggi said Kirsch never received a bad employee evaluation until after she met with School Board President Patricia Losito to outline a growing number of concerns employees had raised about Martzloff’s leadership of the district. Starvaggi said Kirsch brought the complaints to the board on advice of the district’s former legal counsel.

Complaints about Martzloff, Starvaggi said, “grew from isolated whispers to a culture of paranoia in the school district” in his first three years on the job.

“My client found herself drawn into the middle of this concern,” Starvaggi said. “This was not of her own choosing. She would have been very content to do her job and go home to her family. She had absolutely nothing to gain from an adversarial relationship with Dr. Martzloff.”

Among the complaints about the superintendent, Starvaggi said, was that Martzloff had created a list of students he wanted in one of his children’s classes and that he had gained access to the district’s email server. Martzloff has previously said he has followed district procedures.

Van Vessem, however, call Starvaggi’s account of retaliation a “smoke screen” intended to dismiss complaints about her own performance.

“When the case is fully presented, we submit the evidence will show that whatever excuses that she’s going to offer don’t correspond with the facts and the evidence,” Van Vessem said.

Kirsch had requested that the administrative hearing of the charges against her be open to the public. The proceedings drew more than a dozen spectators who had to rotate into a small conference room in the district officers where the first day of the hearing was held.

“My client has elected to hold this hearing in public because, first of all, she has nothing to hide,” Starvaggi said. “And second of all, because she believes that it is time for honesty and transparency in the school district.”

Attorneys expect witnesses to continue to testify over several weeks before the hearing is concluded. Hearing officer Paul Caffera will then issue a written determination whether the district proved the charges against Kirsh and whether the district can fire her.