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Gowanda board ready for new start

GOWANDA — Despite some empty seats on the school board, remaining members and newly elected President Dana Szalay are ready for a new chapter that does not include as much controversy and in-fighting.

During an earlier meeting this month, the board officially voted Szalay as president. The board had been without an official leader since Ron Cook resigned from the board in November while seats held by both Janet Vogtli and David Barnes, who both resigned last month, remain open.

Szalay hopes the changes can begin a healing process. “There are some things shared in the public, and people can say whatever they want to the public, but that doesn’t make it true,” she said. “We really want the employees of the district, people in the community, and students to know that we truly are there for them as support, and we encourage folks to come to any one of us with positive stories, concerns, or other ideas. It’s unfortunate that some folks may only share their biased opinions or go by one thing they heard and assume that’s everyone’s opinion. I’m very fact based, I don’t go based on opinions, and I don’t want us painted in that light.”

Szalay said that differing opinions are more than welcome, and even encouraged on the Gowanda School Board, because having different perspectives leads to the most information and the best decision making.

“It is important to stay unbiased. I’ve been in the human service field for 15 years, and that’s something that comes with time,” she said. “Not everyone can keep their views and opinions out of things, and it’s important for a board to be able to do that. “It’s unfortunate when we lose team members because consistency is always key. There’s value in keeping a consistent team especially in a pandemic. Even if we don’t all agree, that’s OK, and can change our minds with new information, that’s OK too. We don’t all have to agree as long as we’re doing what’s best.”.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Gowanda school board has featured several disagreements, especially from both Vogtli and Barnes. In issuing her resignation, Vogtli said the rest of the board would make decisions behind the backs of Barnes and Vogtli specifically.

“As time went on, there were lots of problems with paperwork, people getting hired before the board approved it, and everybody just blamed it on new people,” Vogtli said. “It happened until I kept asking questions, and then they finally got their act together.”

Vogtli and Barnes had been two of the more controversial people on the Gowanda Board, with both of them getting charged with misconduct pursuant to New York State Education Law 1709 (18) in May. Vogtli embraced her role, and believes she is the one who was getting to the bottom of the issues on the board.

“Do I get upset? Yes. I ask questions repeatedly and get no answers. I kick the can down the road, always getting told next time, next time, and then it never gets taken care of. Is there tension on the board? Yes. Am I angry? Yes. Am I abrasive? Yes,” Vogtli said. “But if you keep asking questions and not getting answers, what am I supposed to do? Be quiet? I finally had enough and said I’m getting out. Everyone online is saying it’s a Christmas miracle.”

The list of issues Vogtli had were numerous. Ranging from questions to where the school’s budget is actually being spent, to the yearly review of Gowanda Superintendent Robert Anderson that Vogtli claims hasn’t been done, to the hiring process for positions in the Gowanda School District. Vogtli’s biggest complaint though is that she feels she hasn’t been heard.

“What really bothers me is there’s a group of people who will sit and watch it, and then will complain how horrible we are,” Vogtli said. “Those people are not listening to what’s happening at school. They need to get involved in budget meetings. We’re trying to watch where money goes, and ask questions. To me if you violate a contract, there are other things going on.”

Vogtli believes the board took a massive turn for the worse when Cook left, as she stated that Cook was “the best thing to ever happen to the board.” Vogtli holds to the belief that Cook left for similar reasons to her and Barnes, though Cook’s statement says otherwise.

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