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Gowanda school board to go public with charges

David Barnes

GOWANDA — The question is not if, but how Gowanda school board members David Barnes and Janet Vogtli will share their charges of misconduct with the public.

During the June 3 school board meeting, Barnes made a motion to share his charges of official misconduct pursuant to New York State Education Law 1709 (18) with the public. Mark Nephew, who was then board president, said he needed to consult with the school district’s attorney, as the board discussed the charges in executive session in a special meeting held on May 14. Ultimately, the board agreed to table the motion until Nephew could consult legal counsel.

Though the matter was not addressed during the June 17 board meeting, Barnes discussed it at length during the round table portion of the July 1 meeting. Barnes announced, under advisement from the school district’s attorney, that he could publicly share his charges — even read them aloud during the meeting. He then made a motion to have his charges posted on the school’s website, which was seconded by Vogtli.

“I’d like it to go onto our website so that people can reference what exactly is being said because it’s a load of crap,” said Barnes. “I’m sure I’ll get in trouble for saying ‘crap’… I’d like everybody in our district to know exactly what our previous board was willing to waste $100,000 on when we can’t afford to give raises, and we can’t afford to take care of the staff we’ve got.”

Barnes and Vogtli pointed out that they each received copies of their respective charges and that Nephew was the only board member to receive copies.

Janet Vogtli

Nephew said that although they did not receive their own copies, the other board members heard the charges as read by the district’s attorney in the May 14 meeting.

“Charges are treated like any other charges brought against tenured faculty or administrators and that the position of the district is that they are confidential,” Nephew said. “They are not released by the district or the board of education. If the individual wants to release them, he or she may do so.”

Barnes insisted that the district post his charges on the school’s website. He and Vogtli left the middle school library separately to hand deliver copies of their charges to board members who were logged into the meeting via Zoom in other classrooms in the building.

At the request of newly-elected board president Ron Cook, Kathy Ferneza, district clerk, read aloud Barnes’ motion to have his charges posted on the school’s website.

Nephew said, “My position is what I’ve said before. We treat them as any other charges … They remain confidential until the hearing is completed.”

Barnes replied, “So you get to prosecute me in public, but what you’re actually doing is kept private? That’s unacceptable … I just want full transparency, and it’s my information, and I want everyone else to know.”

Newly elected board member Jim Hotnich asked Nephew if the charges could be made public before the investigation is completed. Nephew said that normally charges aren’t released but Barnes is free to personally release his information.

Vogtli, too, replied to Hotnich’s question: “Jim, they did an investigation, which was half-assed.”

At Barnes’ request, board vice president Dana Szalay weighed in on the issue.

“Are we allowed to put it up on the site? Is that best practice?” she asked. “Where does that fall on us and how does that make the district look? With that being said, if it’s their information and they want to share it, they can.”

She said that since board members hold elected positions, community members should decide how they feel about the charges. She added that it is important that the school does not incur any liability for posting the charges on their website.

Board member Lynn Guzzetta agreed that Barnes and Vogtli can personally share their charges but disagreed on posting copies on the school’s website.

Hotnich said, “Until we get a say from the attorney, I say, read them (the charges) tonight. Until we get the attorney’s OK, it can’t go on the website.”

Cook made a motion to table Barnes’ motion to post his charges on the district’s website until Cook confers with the district’s attorney.

“We have individuals that are on the board that want to show the taxpayers what we are moving forward with, and I think they have a valid concern that we are in charge of these taxpayers’ dollars,” said Cook. “They want to make it transparent to the entire public. Instead of playing back (Barnes reading his charges) on Zoom…I think it wouldn’t hurt to post it where people can officially see it in black and white.”

The board voted in favor of tabling Barnes’ motion. In the interest of time and clarity, both Barnes and Vogtli declined to read their charges aloud during the July 1 meeting. Board members will meet again via Zoom on July 22 at 6:30 p.m. beginning with a public hearing on the Smart Schools Investment Plan, to be followed immediately by the regular board meeting.

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