Sidway Principal's Arrest Story Dec. 17th - 2004

   B U F F A L O N E W S - Thursday, December 17, 2004 . . . Community stunned by principal's drug arrest
News Northtowns Bureau

Frank J. Cannata

When people talk about a pillar of the community, Frank J. Cannata is the kind of person they have in mind. Church music director. Former School Board president. Elementary school principal.

That's what made his arrest Wednesday on drug possession charges almost crushing to his many friends, acquaintances and admirers on Grand Island.

"I'm very saddened for Frank. I'm certainly praying for him," said the Rev. Paul Nogaro, pastor of St. Stephen's Catholic Church, where Cannata has played the organ and directed the choir for about 20 years. "He has played a very important role on Grand Island."

Cannata, principal of Charlotte Sidway Elementary School, admitted to investigators Wednesday night that he uses methamphetamine - or speed - and Ecstasy, a hallucinogen, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Clare Kane.

In court papers, DEA Agent William M. Rodgers said agents with a search warrant found at least 5 grams of methamphetamine in Cannata's Barker Street apartment. Rodgers said 14 Ecstasy tablets and a glass pipe used for smoking methamphetamine also were found.

Many who know Cannata were stunned when they learned of his arrest.

They saw Cannata, 40, as a local boy who did them proud. Just one year after he graduated with Grand Island High School's Class of 1982, he became the youngest person ever elected to the Grand Island School Board. He served on the board for 14 years, including three years as president.

He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Canisius College. He worked as a principal in Gouverneur for two years before returning to his hometown to take the job at Sidway Elementary, which he has held for six years.

His upbeat approach, combined with his easy rapport with the children, energized the school, which serves kindergartners and first-graders.

At home Thursday evening, Trish Eichel and other parents were grappling with the news. Her 5-year-old son is in kindergarten at Sidway. "Right away, I was concerned how to handle it with my son. He thinks the world of Mr. Cannata," she said.

She said her son especially looks forward to Thursdays, the day Cannata sings "That's Amore" to pupils at lunch and serves them pizza.

The principal also has endeared himself to residents through his work at St. Stephen's Church, where he has been the music director for nearly 20 years. Nogaro, the pastor, said he wants people to be mindful to not pass judgment because Cannata has not been proved guilty.

"I want people to remember that he's done an overwhelming amount of good in this community," Nogaro said.

Cannata was suspended by the school district early Thursday morning after the DEA informed officials of his arrest, according to Karen Karmazin, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. He will continue to receive his $97,438 salary until the matter is resolved.

School Board Vice President Neil Seaman said he was stunned by the arrest.

"We have never had any concerns, any reason to think anything other than that he was a good principal," Seaman said. Cannata was charged with drug possession, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail.

His arrest was the result of information collected following the arrest of 27 people Wednesday morning, Kane said. A wiretap investigation led to felony drug conspiracy and importation charges against them, she said. They are accused of selling drugs at local nightclubs.

Cannata pleaded not guilty and was released without bail late Thursday afternoon after a brief appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder. He is scheduled to return to court with an attorney Dec. 22.

News staff writer Dan Herbeck contributed to this story.