Taxpayers pour nearly $9 million a year into salaries for central office administrators in the Buffalo Public Schools – the very people deemed by the district’s distinguished educator to be largely responsible for the consistent failure of the system.
Teachers have long complained that district administrators isolated themselves in City Hall, growing increasingly out of touch with the realities of the classroom.
Now, teachers aren’t the only ones complaining that central office staff are inaccessible, unresponsive and out of touch with the schools – so, too, is Judy L. Elliott, the distinguished educator appointed by state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. to recommend ways to improve the district.
“Practices that have not demonstrated effectiveness continue to be implemented,” Elliott wrote in her recent report to King. “There is an overall lack of coherent leadership at the central office as it pertains to [the 28 schools considered among the worst 5 percent in the state].”
For years, many of the same faces have populated City Hall, most of them products of the system, having spent their entire careers in the Buffalo Public Schools.
There were 104 central office administrators in 2010-11, the most recent year for which a comprehensive payroll was available for the district. Each administrator had been in the district an average of 15 years, The Buffalo News found, although most had spent a number of years teaching before being promoted to City Hall.
In addition to the more than two dozen non-union administrators on the payroll – including assistant superintendents, associate superintendents, the chief financial officer, chief of staff and others – there are dozens of union administrators, including directors and supervisors.
Average pay for central office administrators in 2010-11 was just over $85,000.
Union administrators work year-round, including summers. They are entitled to 24 vacation days a year, per their contract, and are off on legal holidays and during winter and spring recess – for a total of about 23 additional days off each year.
Each non-union administrator has an individual contract with the district, but their paid time off generally mirrors that of the union administrators.
Union administrators generally earn tenure protections after three years in a particular job. Exempt administrators, on the other hand, each have a personal one- to three-year contract, with no guarantee of renewal.
In her report to the state, Elliott did not point to specific individuals as being responsible for the dysfunction of the district. Rather, she referred repeatedly to central office as a whole.
“There is a lack of coherence and consistency for the central office’s implementation of role, function and accountability for results,” she wrote. “The current culture of the central office is one of compliance, rather than support to schools. Departments are siloed, and incoherent practices exist within each silo.”
For years, the district has continued doing things largely the same way it always has, generating largely the same results, observers say.
Buffalo spends more than any other district in the state, at $23,000 per student, yet it remains unable to get more than a third of its students reading or doing math at grade level, or much more than half its students graduating from high school.
As a percentage of the district’s overall budget, central office salaries are minuscule – only about one penny of every dollar the district spends goes to pay City Hall administrators.
But the district is not getting a good return on that money, Elliott’s report suggests.
Under former Superintendent James A. Willliams, the size of the non-union administrative staff – those at the top of the chain of command – more than doubled, from 13 to 28.
Williams defended the appointments, saying he saved taxpayers money because those administrators worked long hours without getting paid for overtime.
“I wish I could make everyone exempt, because I wouldn’t have to pay them overtime,” he said in an interview last year.
Several of his appointees failed to meet the minimum job qualifications posted for their positions. He said that while they might not have met specific requirements, they were smart and capable.
“There’s no one on my staff who is not qualified,” he said. “Our kids deserve the best and the brightest. That’s how I operate.”
School Board members expressed surprise and even outrage when The News reported last year that Williams had doubled the exempt staff. Several said he failed to inform them of the additions as he made them.
Similarly, many of his appointments to union administrative positions snuck under the radar, as well.
After serving in an administrative position for three years in a probationary period, union administrators are supposed to be formally presented to the board for consideration for tenure.
Williams failed to present at least three of them to the board for tenure; in the months after he left, then-interim Superintendent Amber M. Dixon failed to present five more for tenure. As a result, all automatically received tenure – unbeknownst to the School Board at the time – through a stipulation in state law that grants the benefit of the doubt to employees in such cases when a district fails to adhere to the rules. That came to light a few weeks ago, when the executive director of human resources – who has served in that role for less than a year – recognized the problem and formalized their tenure.
When Williams left a year ago, Dixon vowed to pare the size of the exempt staff – and she did. By the time she stepped down in July, Dixon had downsized the non-union administrators to fewer than 20.
Some resigned, taking jobs in the private sector or elsewhere in public service. Others saw their positions eliminated and accepted lower-paying jobs within the district.
In contrast, one of Superintendent Pamela C. Brown’s first major acts was to add another person to the ranks of the exempt administrators, filling a position that had been vacant about a year. She appointed former Bennett High School principal David Mauricio as a community superintendent, making him the only one of three community superintendents with high school experience.
Brown points to his appointment, as well as a restructuring of the dozens of City Hall administrators, as her first major step toward improving the Buffalo Public Schools. She has organized three academic support teams, each with a dozen instructional specialists, to work with the community superintendents to help respond to schools better and more quickly, she said.
She says she believes she can get different, better results from the longtime central office staff.
“Yes, we are utilizing the services of mostly the same people,” she acknowledged. “But I believe leadership makes a difference. I believe doing the right kind of work with the right kind of focus and monitoring the impact of what you’re doing makes a difference.”
During her first three months as superintendent, Brown did not appoint anyone from outside the district to any non-union positions. But she says she plans to exercise that discretion soon, once she has had the chance to fully assess the staff that’s already in place.
She rebuts speculation that School Board members – some of whom worked as administrators in the district – will block her from bringing in outsiders.
“I will exercise that authority in the next couple of months, to bring in my own people,” Brown said.