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Former principal pleads guilty to drug possession
News Staff Reporter
A suspended Grand Island elementary school principal admitted Wednesday to misdemeanor possession of the illegal drugs Ecstasy and crystal methamphetamine.

Frank J. Cannata, 41, of Barker Street, could face a federal prison term of one year, but his guilty plea to misdemeanor drug possession will not necessarily prohibit him from returning to work. He will be sentenced Sept. 28.

Before his arrest last December, Cannata was a popular figure on Grand Island, known as a mentor to children and as a church music director.

Cannata, former principal of Charlotte Sidway Elementary School, appeared serious and contrite as he stood before U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder Jr.

Cannata said he has been in a drug counseling program since his arrest. He and his attorney, Roy Carlisi Jr., declined to comment further. A drug investigation at Buffalo nightspots led agents from the Department of Homeland Security and the Drug Enforcement Administration to raid Cannata's Buffalo apartment, where the drugs were found. He was not suspected of drug trafficking, said prosecutor Mary Clare Kane said.

"These were user amounts of drugs that were recovered," Kane said. "The agents found about 15 Ecstasy pills and 0.56 of a gram of pure crystal meth. We found no evidence that would indicate (Cannata) ever dealt drugs, used them at school or gave them to students."

Cannata, who still has many supporters on Grand Island, became a principal in 1998. At age 18, he had become the youngest person ever elected to the Grand Island School Board. He later became School Board president. He also directed musicals and was a nightclub musician. "I had grandchildren at Sidway, and I can tell you the kids at that school loved the guy," said Chuck Goris, 75, of Grand Island, a longtime friend and supporter of Cannata. "He was so enthusiastic. He cared about the kids. He's a fine, fine man that made a mistake, a series of mistakes. . . . He needs help."

Public exposure of his drug involvement started a chain reaction of problems. He was suspended - at first with pay, but later without pay - from his $97,000-a-year job as principal. He was also suspended from his position as music director at St. Stephen's Catholic Church on the island.

After his arrest, authorities disclosed that Cannata had been arrested three other times since 1999, including twice for alleged driving while intoxicated. He pleaded guilty to a reduced charge in one case, and was convicted of DWI in the other.

In a 2003 domestic-violence case, he was arrested for allegedly violating an order of protection and striking an 11-year-old child in a home on Grand Island. According to the district attorney's office, that charge is still pending.

In February of this year, an investigation by an attorney for the Grand Island School Board determined that Cannata had never obtained the permanent state certification required to work as a tenured school principal. That prompted the board to stop paying Cannata, who had served as a School Board member for 14 years before the board hired him as a principal in November 1998.

School district attorney David A. Farmelo said he could not speculate whether Cannata would be reinstated after serving his prison sentence.

"His status continues to be a school employee who is suspended without pay," Farmelo said. "Unless something has changed recently, he is not certified by the state to be an administrator. He'd have to get state certification before he could work for Grand Island or any other district in the state."

Pleading guilty to a felony or misdemeanor drug offense does not automatically require a school administrator to lose his or her license, state Education Department officials said.

"Frank Cannata used to hold a provisional certificate as a school administrator, but that certificate expired in 1999. There is an active investigation concerning Mr. Cannata," said Jonathan Burman, a department spokesman.

Sentencing was scheduled for Sept. 28.