As a high-ranking Buffalo Public Schools administrator, Debbie Buckley oversaw more than $100 million of federal grants that were intended to help impoverished students in the nation’s third-poorest city.
But in less than a year and a half, while Buckley ran the district’s grants department, she directed more than $330,000 of that anti-poverty money to benefit people and businesses close to her, including her son, her former stepsister and a floundering tutoring business that she had founded with her mother. And much of the money went for services that never were provided, investigators found.
Although Buckley was fired seven months ago, the reasons why she was dismissed are coming to light only now because The Buffalo News fought for six months to obtain an investigator’s report that the district had marked confidential and refused to release. The district released the report only after The News filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court under the state’s Freedom of Information Law.
The report and related documents provide a window into a school district administration that allowed a poorly trained individual to control huge sums of money with little scrutiny or supervision.
The report also shows that:
• Buckley authorized payments of more than $40,000 to a janitorial company for teacher training and a summer program for students.
• The district paid to lease space it did not need. In two cases, anti-poverty funds covered payments for space in buildings that Buckley’s tutoring company was using.
• Buckley herself prepared invoices for some vendors.
• Administrators routinely paid vendors for services before contracts were in place.
• Some vendors, including Buckley’s son, were paid for services they did not provide.
Buckley told investigators hired by the district that she did the best she could under challenging circumstances. She received no training as assistant superintendent, she said, and was overwhelmed by work that grew to include responsibilities for grants for the district’s persistently lowest-achieving schools.
On top of that, she said, she struggled with rheumatoid arthritis.
“I should have been off, but I didn’t [take time off],” she told investigators. “I’m one of those people that works through being sick.”
Rise to key role
Buckley, 52, grew up in Buffalo, raised by her mother, the Rev. Daphne Coleman. She went on to Archbishop Carroll High School, then to Trocaire College, where she earned a nursing degree.
She later earned a bachelor’s degree from the University at Buffalo, then two master’s degrees from Canisius College.
She taught math in the Buffalo Public Schools for a while before becoming a supervisor, working at the district offices at City Hall, in the Title I department, which oversees federal anti-poverty money.
In March 2010, then-Superintendent James A. Williams promoted Buckley to assistant superintendent of state and federal programs, in charge of the grants department.
Five years ago, while Buckley was still a supervisor in the Title I office, she and her mother opened the Mastery Center, at 2925 Genesee St. in Cheektowaga, a nonprofit where students received one-on-one tutoring in math and reading.
In the fall of 2009, Buckley and her mother opened a second tutoring site in downtown Buffalo. She approached officials from the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo about renting space at 75 Hickory St. after the diocesan-run Montessori school there closed.
It was during those lease negotiations between the diocese and the Mastery Center that the line began to blur between Buckley’s role as supervisor in the district’s Title I office and her role running the Mastery Center.
Steven Roth, the operating manager for the diocese, later told investigators that during the lease negotiations, he “was under the impression that Buckley was renting the building for, and negotiating on behalf of, the Buffalo School Board.”
Whenever they met, he said, Buckley wore her Buffalo Public Schools ID badge. She gave him her district phone number. She talked to him about Title I staff development.
And Buckley told Roth she wanted to use the space on Hickory Street to provide tutoring to district students.
She signed a five-year lease in November 2009 for 75 Hickory St., agreeing that the Mastery Center would pay $32,000 for the first year, with $2,000 added onto the lease price each year.
SS. Columba-Brigid Catholic Church received a $2,667 check from Buckley and her mother as a down-payment. After that, the church did not receive regular payments from the tutoring center.
When the Mastery Center was unable to make good on its financial obligations to the diocese, Roth called Buckley repeatedly to try to collect the money.
Six months into the lease, the Mastery Center signed over its responsibility for the lease to Crossroads Resource Services, a corporation formed just a month earlier by Rosalind Redfield, Buckley’s former stepsister, and another person.
Around that time, Buckley authorized district workers to move district equipment into Hickory Street, she told investigators.
In January 2011, several months after Crossroads took over the lease for 75 Hickory, Williams signed a contract between the district and Crossroads, renting space for up to $36,000 a year. The contract listed Buckley as the district’s representative.
Although the contract was signed in January 2011, it was retroactive to September 2010.
It was a two-step process that ultimately got Buckley and her mother off the hook for lease payments at 75 Hickory St.
“By assigning the Mastery Center’s interest in the lease of the property at 75 Hickory to Crossroads and then entering into an agreement on behalf of the district with Crossroads,” a forensic audit found, “Debbie Buckley effectively transferred any personal risk she may have had as director and owner of the Mastery Center to the district.”
The district used the space to store equipment – primarily tables and chairs, Buckley told investigators. While the equipment was being stored on Hickory Street, the Mastery Center used it, she said, at no cost.
Another district official told investigators that other storage space was available for those tables and chairs – at no cost to the district.
Buckley conceded to investigators that she never asked about storage space within the district. Instead, she arranged the lease with Crossroads.
Funds for 2nd landlord
Buckley also got the district to use anti-poverty money to pay rent for another of her tutoring agency’s landlords. The district did occasionally use the space, but it did not need that space.
Her Mastery Center had been using 2925 Genesee St., a Cheektowaga building owned by Salvatore Spinuzza. The tutoring center did not pay rent there, though, Buckley said. It gave money to Spinuzza when it could.
Sometime in 2009, Buckley told investigators, the district at her direction starting using the space on Genesee Street for professional development and storage.
Soon after, she was appointed assistant superintendent for the Buffalo Public Schools, and Buckley signed a contract between the district and Spinuzza. The district stored tables and chairs at the Genesee Street site and also held some professional development sessions for teachers of non-public schools there.
She signed the contract in March 2010, although she didn’t submit all the required documents to the district until June. Like the contract for 75 Hickory, the agreement for 2925 Genesee St. was retroactive. In this case, it covered January through August 2010.
Then, in January 2011, Williams signed a second contract with Spinuzza – which also was retroactive. That contract committed the district to pay $21,000 for use of the building for September 2010 through August 2011.
Buckley acknowledged that it was standard practice in the district to pay vendors for services well before a contract was ever signed.
“You’re not supposed to, but everyone has,” she told investigators.
Investigators also questioned the unusual wording of the district’s initial agreement with Spinuzza. It was not a lease, but rather a consultant’s agreement to use the space at 2925 Genesee.
In explaining why she made mistakes with the contract, Buckley told investigators that she was still learning her job.
“We did not have any professional development from people,” she said. “I did not have any help learning how to be an assistant superintendent.”
Buckley also acknowledged the district did not need the space on Genesee Street in Cheektowaga.
As part of its obligations tied to the federal anti-poverty money, the Buffalo School District is responsible for providing professional development to teachers in non-public schools in the region.
Buckley said she decided to pay for space in Cheektowaga because she thought teachers in the suburban schools would not be comfortable traveling downtown.
“Did any of the suburban schools say they would not go (downtown)?” an investigator asked.
“No one said that,” Buckley replied. “That’s my assumption.”
Janitorial firm paid
Buckley also used anti-poverty money to pay a janitorial company for teacher training and student tutoring. And investigators could not be verify that all those services were provided.
Buckley put together a contract in September 2009 for Elaine Hayes, a former Buffalo elementary teacher and former Dunkirk principal, to provide professional development to teachers in non-public schools.
The district agreed to pay Hayes $83,280 for the teacher training plus $7,500 to tutor students in a summer program.
Hayes said she knew Buckley through work but didn’t know her well. Hayes rents an apartment from Buckley’s mother, but says she knows the Rev. Coleman only as a landlord.
A few weeks after Buckley was promoted to assistant superintendent, Hayes asked her to start making the checks out to a company called E&M Enterprises, rather than making them out to Hayes, citing tax reasons. Buckley obliged.
The district wrote 47 checks, totaling $41,780, to E&M Enterprises – a janitorial company owned by Hayes’ mother.
Those payments to E&M Enterprises included $7,500 for a summer program for students, along with training sessions for teachers from several non-public schools. Topics included cultural sensitivity, conflict resolution and organizational skills. Some of those sessions, Hayes said, were held at the schools, while others were at 2925 Genesee or at 75 Hickory.
Barbara J. Smith, the district’s chief financial officer, apparently became aware in June 2011 that the district had paid the janitorial company for teacher training and student programs, and started asking questions. Buckley later told investigators that she had no idea the district paid a janitorial service for teacher training.
“Did you ever talk to Elaine about whether she was actually doing janitorial services?” an investigator asked.
“The answer is no,” Buckley replied. “Like I’ve got time to talk to Elaine.”
In an interview with The Buffalo News, Hayes said she decided it made sense to fold her work with the schools into her mother’s existing business.
“We were just going to add professional development to E&M’s cleaning services. Nobody said you can’t do it. I didn’t think anything of it,” said Hayes, who is now principal of Aloma D. Johnson Fruit Belt Community Charter School.
Investigators found $26,775 in payments the district made to Hayes and E&M Enterprises – all of which Buckley signed off on – that lacked supporting documentation to prove that anyone attended the teacher training sessions.
During the summer of 2010, the district – at Buckley’s direction – also paid Hayes $7,500 to provide a summer tutoring program at 75 Hickory for 20 neighborhood children.
It’s not clear, though, how many children attended the program.
The student roster included students from kindergarten through 10th grade. But when investigators spoke with Hayes a year and a half later, she did not recognize the name of a single student on the roster.
Another district official later told a forensic auditor that on one particular day, during a visit to Hickory Street, only four students were present – not 20.
“I didn’t touch any of the billing,” Hayes said. “I guess Debbie and the people downtown handled all that.”
In fact, Hayes said Buckley prepared some of the invoices for her.
Buckley told investigators she created invoices for Spinuzza and Crossroads.
“I was just trying to facilitate getting things done the best I could,” she said. “I don’t know what people think I’m doing. I was just trying to get [Spinuzza] his money.”
“Did you create invoices for anyone else?” an investigator asked.
“Any time somebody wanted me to, I would,” Buckley said.
Buckley’s son’s contract
While investigators could not verify all the services that Hayes was supposed to have provided, even bigger discrepancies were found with services that were contracted with someone very close to Buckley: her son.
In September 2009, Hassan Saddique got a district contract for $13,600 to provide computer support services six hours a day, five days a week, to the Universal School, a private school in Amherst, according to the investigator’s report.
He submitted invoices totaling $16,600 – more than the amount allowed under the contract – including seven invoices that were allegedly signed by Kathy Ahmed, the principal of that school. Saddique declined to speak to the district’s investigators and did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Ahmed told investigators she had never met Hassan Saddique – and that he had never done any work at the school.
Buckley told investigators she had told her son, as well as others who were doing work for non-public schools, that “they could sign for a non-public school official.” She later acknowledged that directive was in error.
Buckley told investigators that her son never worked at the Universal School, and that he had been reassigned to work at two other schools, Bishop Timon and Nazareth Lutheran. Representatives from Bishop Timon told investigators that Saddique did not provide any computer services at the school, but did tutor some students for an hour and a half after school two or three days a week.
In the first few weeks after she became assistant superintendent, Buckley signed the purchase orders for two payments to her son, in April 2010.
Folasade Oladele, the deputy superintendent at the time and Buckley’s direct supervisor, later warned her not to sign off on payments for her son.
Buckley said she felt she was being harassed and went to Williams.
“I said, ‘Dr. Williams, my son is working. Situations are coming up, because all of these people are coming after me with stuff,’ ” she told investigators. “And he said, ‘Do you know how many people have these type of relationships in this district? How could you be worried about that?’
“And I said that people don’t like me here, so I have to be worried where other people do not have to be worried. That’s why. He said, don’t worry about it.”
Williams told investigators he did not have such a conversation with Buckley.
In fact, he said he did not even know she had a son.
District administrators began scrutinizing Buckley’s activities around July 2011, when Smith, the district’s chief financial officer, hired a private investigator to look into possible connections between Buckley and Hayes, E&M Enterprises and Crossroads.
No connections were found.
About a month later, Williams called a meeting with Buckley to discuss allegations that Buckley had hired relatives, awarded contracts to relatives and allowed relatives to use rental properties, according to the district’s notes.
Then in September 2011, Buckley was escorted out of her City Hall office and placed on paid leave.
The School Board in October 2011 voted to hire Bond Schoeneck & King to investigate Buckley’s activities.
Then-interim Superintendent Amber M. Dixon in November 2011 received a forensic audit that showed “Buckley entered the district into contracts and authorized payments with related parties without any disclosure of her interest.”
Over 16 months, those payments totaled $331,938, the audit found.
Buckley remained on the district’s payroll for another seven months. Her salary in 2010-11 was $88,476, although she grossed $103,943 that year, including unused vacation time and other stipends, according to payroll records.
Bond Schoeneck & King delivered a 34-page report April 4, 2012, reiterating much of what was in the forensic audit and supplementing it with interviews with Buckley and 19 others.
It wasn’t until June 27 that the board voted to fire Buckley. Mary Ruth Kapsiak, who represents the Central District, cast the sole dissenting vote.
A week after the vote, The Buffalo News requested a copy of the investigator’s report under the state’s Freedom of Information Law. The district denied the request, citing attorney-client privilege. The News appealed that decision to Superintendent Pamela C. Brown, who denied the appeal on the same grounds.
On Nov. 26, The News filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court, seeking copies of the documents.
Three weeks later, the district released the 34-page investigator’s report, with about four pages of information redacted – as well as 434 pages of related documents, all unredacted.
Read the transcript of the investigator’s interview with Buckley.