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Clifton-Fine Central School terminates contracts of interim principal, interim superintendent

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STAR LAKE — The Clifton-Fine Central School Board handed walking papers to interim Principal Brian S. Buchanan and interim Superintendent Susan O. Shene, ostensibly because of an incident Mr. Buchanan had with a student, but some community members saw the contract terminations as vindictive.

Board President Michelle L. Durham did not return a call for comment and board members at the conclusion of a lengthy executive session Wednesday did not provide the roughly dozen spectators with a reason for the termination notices, but some speculated that the board is using the incident with Mr. Buchanan as retaliation against him and Mrs. Shene for what happened with the superintendent search.

“At this point, it’s very calculated and personal,” Mr. Buchanan said. “I seriously question the ethics of the majority of the board members.”

At the end of the meeting, the board gave 30-day notices to Mr. Buchanan and Mrs. Shene, who is tenured and will return to her job as principal.

The board earlier this year failed to come to an agreement with Mrs. Shene on her becoming superintendent and Mr. Buchanan then turned down the job.

On March 25, Mr. Buchanan bear-hugged student Jeremy W. Blasko, then 15, who wanted to leave the school after being told he had to serve detention. The incident was captured on video but has no sound. According to witness Jaime D. Simmons, the teenager threatened to hit Mr. Buchanan in the face, used vulgarities and was upset.

State police reviewed the tape and determined Mr. Buchanan’s actions were justified and the St. Lawrence County District Attorney’s office concurred.

But the teenager’s mother, Danelle M. Hillman, thought Mr. Buchanan should be punished.

“We’re not completely making my son blameless but the principal didn’t have to put his hands on him,” she said. “I’m glad the board took action. He could have seriously hurt a student.”

Mr. Buchanan said he would have the same response if faced with a similar situation.

“I was motivated by what was right for the kids in the building and the student involved,” he said. “I believe I did what was in the best interest of the school district.”

Ms. Simmons said the school board never asked her about her impression of what happened even though she was there.

“Jeremy was very upset. Mr. Buchanan was being quiet. I just saw Mr. Buchanan hug him and hold him,” Ms. Simmons said. “He was totally there to protect Jeremy. The board never once talked to me.”

The termination of his contract will not hurt his future employment, Mr. Buchanan said.

He will return to the Oneida City School District, where he will become Seneca Street Elementary School principal July 1.

“I’m fine. The only people this is going to hurt is the kids,” he said. “I feel very badly for Sue because she hasn’t done anything wrong.”

However, Mrs. Hillman said the version of events as told by Mr. Buchanan and Mrs. Shene keep changing.

“I know there’s a lot of politics,” she said. “It’s a small town and everybody’s trying to defend their own. Meanwhile, my son could have gotten hurt and nobody gave a crap.”

Her son would like to move on, she said.

“He kind of just wants it to be done and over with,” she said. “He didn’t want to have issues.”

Mrs. Hillman said she reviewed the tape of the incident with Mr. Buchanan and later with the board in an executive session April 8 after it hired Regina C. Yeo as superintendent, effective July 1. The board took no action that night.

“They said they were going to look into it more,” Mrs. Hillman said. “I had no idea they were meeting a second time.”

The board scheduled a special meeting for Saturday, then canceled it, and later set up Wednesday’s meeting.

Mrs. Hillman said she is working at hiring a lawyer so she can have a copy of the tape.

In a prepared statement, Mrs. Shene wrote that the board’s action was ill-advised.

“The decision to change administration prior to the end of the school year could disrupt teaching and learning. However, I am confident that I can, in my role as principal, continue Clifton-Fine’s tradition of successfully preparing our students for the future,” she said. “I urge all residents to exercise your right to vote on May 21, during the annual budget vote and school board elections for three three-year seats.”

Mrs. Shene said that Mrs. Durham told audience members at the meeting that the board planned to hire an interim superintendent to fill the month-and-a-half-long gap before Mrs. Yeo arrives.

In her statement, Mrs. Shene referenced an April 13 Watertown Daily Times article that detailed the district’s turbulent history with many of its superintendents.

“Clifton-Fine has a history of instability at the administrative level and addressing this instability needs to be a priority for future board of education members,” Mrs. Shene wrote.

At least eight people have picked up petitions to run for the school board seats that are held by Mrs. Durham, Richard W. Hitchman and Robert P. Tebo III.

Petitions are due April 22.

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