by Janet Schultz
Strained relations among Niagara-Wheatfield Board of Education members, superintendent and staff members appear to be continuing as the school district reacts to budget problems.
Prior to the Niagara-Wheatfield Board of Education meeting Jan. 18, the School Related Personnel Union invited its members and supporters to an informational picket outside the Community Resource Building.
The picket was organized to share their frustration over three points. These are that they feel there is no communication between the administration and the SRP; that Superintendent Carl Militello is suing the district over his contract, but refuses to honor the SRP collective bargaining agreement; and that the administration is disrespectful, in violation with the agreement and Taylor laws and refuses to discuss the matter.
The SRP is calling for the resignation of Militello or removal of him by the Board of Education.
Niagara-Wheatfield is currently facing a $10 million deficit and has hired a consultant to review their financial records for the past five years in order to see what, if any, misuse of funds took place; and to assist them in coming up with a balanced budget for 2012-13.
"I have worked for Niagara-Wheatfield for 24 years and never experienced anything like this in our district," said Robert Jasper, vice president of the SRP.
"Our right to represent members (has) been challenged, our contract rights have been ignored and our members have been targeted for discipline," he went on. "Our members came here tonight to impress upon the public and Board of Education that we are one, that we have a voice and will use that voice.
"I ask the board to work with us, change the culture in the district from combative to once again positive and respectful," he concluded.
SRP Union President Rita Aderman came to the podium and immediately requested that the board remove Militello as superintendent.
"This union is fully prepared to help this district move forward," she said. "But that can't happen with Mr. Militello."
It was statements from Karen Anderson that brought about responses from board members Kathy Fleming and Christopher Peters.
Anderson questioned the board on how the district got to where they did.
"I don't know how a person can be running a school district, can put us in this financial situation and maintain his employment," said Anderson, who received a round of applause.
At that point Fleming questioned board President Steve Sabo on the policy regarding being disrespectful to individual school personnel.
Sabo reminded her that Militello is also a member of the school board.
"I don't know how could you serve on a board that put us in this position," responded Anderson, who reminded Fleming she came in with positive remarks, fell within her time allotment and was appreciative of being able to speak.
"You just don't like what I have to say," Anderson responded.
"I'm glad that Mr. Sabo's friend was able to come out and support him," responded Fleming.
Sabo suggested Fleming resign from the board, which also drew applause.
Peters accused Fleming, who is a past president of the board, of putting the district in the current situation.
Fleming reminded them it was done for the children.
"Nothing from the past board was ever questioned," said Peters. "I question everything to make sure I make an educated decision."
The public comments continued with Niagara-Wheatfield Teachers Union President Kevin Rustowicz.
"I'm not in the middle of any fray with anyone," said Rustowicz. "There are many components of a budget. We haven't been invited to be part of the budget process but we are ready to help. We know how we got here. With the dire situations in the state and communities we need to ask ourselves how can we move forward?"
The final speaker, Mike Moroziak, reminded the board that there are three things important to a person, their name, honesty and integrity.
"In this district, (it's a) lack of honesty and integrity, and it starts at the top, right at the top," Moroziak said. "I think the only way is for you to walk away, Mr. Militello."
Following the public comments, the board went on with its business meeting, which also found them discussing the district's financial crisis.
Dr. Richard Hitzges, hired Oct. 19 as an educational consultant, to review past audits and past budgets, has submitted his findings, Peters said.
"Basically, what he said was that we were in good financial standing in '07-'08," said Peters, but he added "We have appropriated $4.4 million to this budget, and we don't have the money."
Peters said he will bring the entire report to the board's next meeting.
"Now we have to move forward," said Peters. "It will be a tough road. It's not fair that a board didn't do its job, and it could have been prevented."
"You need the right people in here, and at this point I don't know if we have the right people on this board working together to do this because of what was done before by certain people," said Sabo.
Fleming responded to the evening's activities by saying "Unprofessional is making decisions without all members' input, unprofessional is speaking for all the board members when their opinions are not consulted, unprofessional is speaking unprofessionally through communications with district personnel that are here to lead our district; unprofessional is hiring a law firm, wasting taxpayer money that could be spent on saving jobs and programs and allowing them to run the district as opposed to our administrators; unprofessional is not understanding the difference between our present superintendent's contract that saved us $40,000 as compared to (the) former superintendent's contract."
"How do we save it all? We need a team effort, we are going to need the unions," said. "It's $10.4 million."
"I've never seen numbers like this," said board member David Breier of the district's current financial problems. "I want to thank both unions, and I know it's hard to come to work when morale is low, but I want to thank you for not letting it affect the kids."
•The board's met for a budget workshop Jan. 25 after the Tribune went to press. More budget workshops are set for 6 p.m. Feb. 1, 7 p.m. Feb. 8 and 6 p.m. Feb. 15 in the Adult Learning Center at the high school.
The Board of Education is encouraging parents, students, staff and community members to participate in the 2012-13 budget development process. To help understand the community's priorities an online budget survey has been created on the district's website. Suggestions will be shared with the Board of Education and the administrative team for consideration throughout the budget development process.