Adrienne Sayers expects to lose her $103,000-a-year job as a Niagara Falls schoolteacher because school district officials believe she violated a policy that requires employees to live in the City of Niagara Falls.
The Spanish teacher learned in January that private detectives hired by the district had been watching, following and taking surveillance videos of her for months, trying to find out where she resides.
In May, the district sent her a letter that said there was “reason to believe” she violated the policy by living with her husband in Amherst, and threatened to begin termination proceedings within the next week.
Sayers told The Buffalo News she anticipates she will be formally fired later this month, when the School Board is scheduled to vote on her future.
The Niagara Falls residency rule is unusual. According to the American Federation of Teachers, very few school districts throughout the country require teachers to live in the district where they work.
The 22-year district employee claims she is a victim of “selective enforcement,” saying she is aware of other Niagara Falls teachers who live outside the city but are not targeted because they have political connections or personal ties to school district leaders.
“They went after me because I’m a person who stands up and speaks up for me and my fellow employees,” said Sayers, who has worked at Niagara Falls High School. “If you’re connected, you can pretty much do what you want. They don’t place you under surveillance for eight months and kick you out of your job.”
So far, school district officials have declined to comment on Sayers’ case, calling it a “personnel matter” that district policy prohibits them from discussing.
But letters from the district that Sayers showed to The News make clear that she’s been under investigation and surveillance since last year, and that the School Board plans to vote on firing her on July 25.
It is also clear that the Niagara Falls district, which currently has more than 580 union employees, has rarely acted to fire employees over their residency since its controversial residency policy went into effect in 1994.
According to longtime School Board attorney Angelo Massaro, the district has terminated, or tried to terminate, about “25 to 30” employees for alleged violations of the residency policy over the past 25 years.
Massaro denied that political connections have any influence on how the School Board enforces the residency policy.
“I think our history would show that it has been very fair and nondiscriminatory in terms of how the policy has been applied to teachers and administrators,” Massaro said.
When asked about Sayers’ contention that teachers with political ties get a pass, Massaro said: “That is wrong.”
Sayers said she does not believe she violated the residency policy. She said she and her first husband owned a home in Niagara Falls for 15 years, but sold it in 2015 after their divorce. Sayers said she has since rented apartments in the Falls – initially on Buffalo Avenue, later on Niagara Falls Boulevard.
Sayers said she has sometimes stayed overnight in her Niagara Falls apartment, sometimes at her parents’ home in Niagara Falls, and sometimes at the Amherst home of her second husband, Benjamin, whom she married last summer. She said Benjamin Sayers is required to live in Amherst because his three sons from a previous marriage attend schools in Williamsville.
Sayers said she has done her best to adhere to the Niagara Falls residency rule – even though she opposes it – while also maintaining a good family life. She has two daughters from her first marriage.
“Basically, I’ve chosen to do what’s best for my family,” Sayers said. “I tried to do something that worked for me and for the district. It wasn’t good enough for the district. Is it worth throwing away 103K a year for the benefit of your family? Yes, I believe it is.”
She showed a News reporter surveillance reports that were sent to her by the school district. The surveillance was conducted by Probe Services, a company hired by the district.
The reports from Probe Services show that investigators conducted early morning stakeouts on several occasions at the Niagara Falls apartment and simultaneously at Benjamin Sayers’ home in Amherst.
A report on a Jan. 2 surveillance shows the stakeout began at 6 a.m.
“7:06 a.m. The garage door opens at the Southwedge Drive address in Getzville. Ms. Sayers is briefly observed entering her blue Subaru sedan which was parked in the garage,” the surveillance report states. “Moments later she departs and we initiate mobile surveillance (video). 7:37 a.m. Ms. Sayers arrives at the Niagara Falls High School … where she parks, exits the vehicle, retrieves two bags from the passenger side and enters the school (video).”
The Probe Services reports detail several other instances in which Sayers was followed between June 2018 and March of this year.
Sayers maintains that some of the information in the surveillance reports is wrong, but she does not deny that she has stayed overnight in Amherst on many occasions with her husband and her family.
Sayers has hired a Buffalo attorney, Hugh C. Carlin, to represent her, but said she has not decided if she will sue the district. Carlin could not be reached for comment.
Buffalo eliminated rule
As of 2006, Chicago and Milwaukee were the only school districts among the nation’s 50 largest that had a residency requirement, according to the American Federation of Teachers. Milwaukee’s requirement was abolished in 2016 due to some changes in Wisconsin state laws.
The Buffalo School District had an employee residency rule since the early 1990s but repealed it in 2011 after deciding that the residency rule was hampering the district’s ability to recruit quality teachers.
“The Niagara Falls district and many others face a looming teacher shortage, and the residency requirement is not going to help with hiring,” said Daniel Weiss, a Niagara Falls teacher who is president of the city’s teachers’ union. Weiss said he would not be surprised if the school district has to “revisit” the issue someday because of the pressing need for quality teachers.
Weiss added that the union has filed several court challenges to the residency rule over the years, but has always lost.
School district leaders have defended the policy, saying it helps the city – and the district – by keeping people who make good salaries as city residents.
“It’s important for students to see their teachers living in the same community where they work,” said Massaro. “I would say that it’s uplifting for the students and for the district.”
The median salary for teachers in Niagara Falls is more than $93,000, the highest among 37 districts in the Buffalo Niagara region, The News reported last month. The study was compiled by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, an Albany-based think tank.
Sayers opposes policy
Regardless of what happens in her case, Sayers said she disagrees with the residency policy. She said she does not believe living in the district makes her or anyone else a better teacher. She said there are reasons why she would rather not live in the district where she works.
Over the years, she said, she has been threatened with physical harm several times by students or their family members.
“I once told a kid to take his earbuds out and turn off his cellphone because I was about to teach,” Sayers said. “He told me I was too stupid to teach, and told me that he knew what color my car was and where I lived.”
Paul Wos, a former Niagara Falls High School music teacher who retired in 2012, said he has known many teachers and job applicants who object to the residency rule.
“I served on a lot of job interview committees, and I know this law hurt us in terms of finding quality applicants for music teacher jobs,” Wos said. “People would tell us they were taking jobs elsewhere, in a district that didn’t have such a policy. No other district in Western New York has this policy. To me, that sends up a big red flag to job applicants, that the city is going to force you to live here.”
Wos said he has known Sayers since 1990, when she was his student at Niagara Falls High School. He said she always impressed him as an enthusiastic, hard-working teacher.
“To me, it looks like they are getting rid of a good teacher,” Wos said. “What kind of teacher are they going to get to replace her?”
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