Principal to return to work after $1 million case

SALAMANCA, N.Y.(WIVB) – Seneca Elementary School Principal Charles “Chuck” Crist will return to work next Tuesday in the Salamanca School District after more than four years of hearings.

The Salamanca School Board has decided not to appeal the hearing officer’s ruling that the case against Crist lodged by the district did not meet the burden to terminate him. During the entire disciplinary process, Crist has remained on paid leave.

The case cost the district about a million dollars, according to Salamanca School Superintendent Robert Breidenstein. He said Crist’s salary and benefits during that period amounts to about $600,000. Legal fees are estimated at about $400,000.

Breidenstein tells News 4 that he and board members believe the hearing process in the state was “fundamentally flawed.”

“We accept the decision with great disagreement, but we’ve had an opportunity to present our case and the hearing officer indicated we did not meet the high threshold to terminate an employee,” he said. “This process has no winners, but the board has determined it is time to heal this district and return to the business at hand: educating children and supervising staff.”

Several people who attended the meeting applauded the ruling. The charges alleged Crist had attempted to withhold services to students with special needs, and that he had allegedly sent inappropriate e-mails to staff members. Crist’s attorney, Andre Dalbec, says they were false allegations and politically motivated.

“They were categorically false and they were completely disproven. And what it turned out to be was they were political issues between the Central Office personnel and the building principal in general, and my client, Mr. Crist,” he said.

Though Crist was fully exonerated and will return to work next week, the Salamanca School Board and superintendent are not happy with the hearing officer’s findings.

Breidenstein said, “The district categorically disagrees with this decision and objects to the ruling on multiple levels.”

But Crist is happy to be finally returning to work.

“The support I received from the staff and personnel at the school, just walking back through the door and appreciating their support for everything that they’ve done for me over these last 51 months,” he said. “Obviously my family, my wife in particular and I, are somewhat relieved and gratified that after all this time a formal decision was made by the hearing officer that exonerated me from all the charges that were brought forth.”

He’s getting ready to return to his role as principal of Seneca Elementary.

Crist said, “I dusted off my shoes and I’ve looked at my ties to see if any of them are still in date and I could wear them, sent a couple of suits to the cleaners. Hopefully they’ll still fit, but I have every intention of resuming my career, only because of the support I received from the staff and personnel at the school. And I do miss the kids.”

Salamanca Mayor Carmen Vecchiarella calls Crist “a credit to his school” and says he is glad Crist will return to work on Tuesday. The mayor says he attended school in Salamanca with Crist and they played football together.

Crist’s sister, Jane St. John, who is the Cattaraugus County Court Clerk tells News 4 she is “glad it’s finally over. It’s been a difficult five years for everybody. Thank God for the support [he had] from family, friends and coworkers. We knew he would be vindicated in the end, and we were right. He loves the kids and the kids missed him. I’ve never heard him so happy.”

Since Crist has been placed on paid leave, the elementary school was moved into the high school building in Salamanca. The Common Core standard changes may also pose a challenge to the principal, who has been away for four years and three months.

Superintendent Breidenstein says the district will work with the principal to bring him up-to-date.

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