Crystal Boling-Barton, the polarizing longtime principal at McKinley High School, has been on paid administrative leave for more than a year and a half while under investigation by the Buffalo Public Schools, but her presence still looms large.
For one, the school district has paid her nearly a quarter-million dollars to stay home.
And despite her absence in the school she led for three decades, Barton remains a central figure in the recent controversy at the high school on Elmwood Avenue, where two very different portrayals of McKinley have emerged since her exit.
On one side, the teachers union alleges that the school has been “out of control” under the leadership of the new principal, a discussion that was reignited earlier this month when a McKinley student was charged with assaulting a teacher.
“We didn’t have these issues when Crystal Barton was there, but that’s not really why the teachers are complaining,” said Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. “They’re concerned because there’s a lack of discipline at the school.”
On the other side, defenders say McKinley continues to be one of the district’s better high schools – graduation rates are up, attendance is up – and suspect the mudslinging is a political ploy by the teachers union to force Barton’s return.
“I think the crux of the issue is Crystal Barton,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. “People are trying to create a need for her and an environment to bring her back.”
That’s the backdrop for the recent tension at McKinley, a school of more than 1,000 students known for its trade programs, where the BTF has been at odds with the district over school leadership since Barton was put on leave.
Barton, principal at McKinley since 1987, was placed on paid administrative leave on May 11, 2017, after the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of a McKinley student who alleged discrimination against LGBTQ students during her tenure.
In a settlement, the school district agreed to a number of terms – including maintaining a Gay-Straight Alliance, an after-school club for students. The NYCLU eventually dropped its case.
But Barton – who maintains that the allegations against her were unfounded – did not return to McKinley, and she instead became the target of a broader school district probe involving the alleged misuse of funds during her time as principal.
The investigation, which has centered on African-American artifacts Barton purchased for the school over the years using $22,000 in student-activity funds, is still “ongoing,” but district officials would say little more.
In the 20 months she has been on leave, Barton has been paid $229,317, according to district records from Jan. 22.
“They’re grasping at straws,” said Robert Boreanaz, Barton’s attorney. “I think they’re under pressure. If they return Mrs. Barton, they have to admit they made a mistake. They don’t want to do that.”
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It’s not the first time Barton has been at the center of controversy.
A decade ago, a special investigator found that Barton was the driving force in an “excessive” seven-week suspension given to a student who denounced the principal for firing an assistant girls basketball coach. The issue caused a local media uproar because it forced the student to miss most of her senior basketball season.
Barton tried unsuccessfully to get the state to remove a School Board member who was trying to hold her accountable. And, Boreanaz said, as president of the Buffalo Council of School Administrators, the union representing principals, Barton has been a “thorn in the side” of the district for years.
“In my opinion,” Boreanaz said, “they have taken so long in this investigation because, one, incompetence; two, a deep desire to find anything they can; and, three, there’s nothing there.”
Meanwhile, the teachers union and district administrators have been feuding over her old school.
Last year, faculty at the school gave a vote of “no confidence” to Barton’s replacement, Marck Abraham, who had been assistant principal under her. They raised concerns about school safety and the lack of attention paid to disruptive student behavior.
Tensions between the two sides intensified earlier this month after a freshman was charged with assaulting a teacher, who was then put on leave while the district investigated his role in the altercation. The teacher remains on leave.
Rumore and the union have since alleged other problems and incidents at McKinley, including excessive student tardiness without consequences, the lack of detention and declaring suspended students illegally absent to improve the school’s suspension rate.
Superintendent Kriner Cash, as well as Radford’s parent group have come to Abraham’s defense. They both heaped praise on the school – which has a 77 percent graduation rate – and Abraham's leadership. Cash said he has “100 percent confidence in the current principal.”
Rumore countered by issuing a survey to teachers at McKinley to gauge the climate. Now, union leadership is also calling for Abraham’s removal.
Do teachers want Barton to return?
“I don’t know,” Rumore said, “but I can tell you I would probably think the school is better off if she were back.”