The hiring of Mary E. Guinn as interim deputy superintendent of the Buffalo Public Schools is likely to breed even more dissension and hard feelings on a School Board that has been bitterly divided over the leadership of Superintendent Pamela C. Brown.
The question is, why Guinn and why now?
“It was probably not a wise move politically,” said board President Barbara Seals Nevergold, “but we’re trying to deal with educating children. So the motivation to this was to move the district forward.”
Board member James M. Sampson responded, “I just don’t buy the fact that a three-month appointment is going to create any significant change.”
Guinn and the consulting firm she worked for, Cross & Joftus, were terminated by the board in the fall after a rocky ride in Buffalo. But Brown said she needs someone as competent and trustworthy as Guinn to help move her vision forward over the next three months.
Guinn, who held the title of interim deputy superintendent and leadership consultant for six months last year, had been seen by many on the board, in the community and within the central administration as a polarizing figure. She spearhead Brown’s costly Central Office reorganization and was heavily criticized both for her high consulting pay and for assuming authority as a consultant that many other top-level administrators considered unwarranted.
“She just doesn’t seem to work well with others, or the principals in the district,” said board member Jason M. McCarthy. “They don’t trust Mary Guinn, and more so, I don’t trust Mary Guinn.”
Brown said Thursday that she and her staff cannot effectively focus on district planning and big-picture concerns to turn around struggling schools while pulling “double duty” handling day-to-day school operations. Guinn will offer leadership coaching to other top administrators and shepherd through other major projects over the next 90 days, she said.
“We cannot risk the future … in simply settling for an individual in such a critical role who is not fully prepared to come on board and hit the ground running,” she said.
Guinn begins next week, while Brown continues her search for a permanent deputy superintendent, she said. When asked about Guinn possibly getting the job on a permanent basis, Brown said, “There are no such plans.”
Not all board members believe that, however. Back in October, Brown said she told The Buffalo News she had no plans to hire Guinn as deputy interim superintendent but continued to bring up the idea with board officers months later. Some board and community members called the hiring of Guinn a huge political mistake given the very limited board support that Brown has now and with May elections looming for the board. They also faulted Brown for not seriously considering other candidates as permanent hires and accused Guinn of dishonesty.
Guinn was hired last March with private grant money. She was to serve as interim deputy superintendent for three months while the district searched for a permanent deputy.
But no deputy was ever hired. Instead, Brown asked Guinn to stay on as a consultant. Guinn had previously participated in the months-long search for a permanent candidate, which had been spearheaded by HealthNow.
“Many applicants were reluctant to assume the position at this time,” Brown wrote in a statement, later blaming the political climate in the city for deterring candidates.
A spokesman with HealthNow said that while the company did assist with the search, it pulled back after about six months of limited progress. The company presented the district with three potential candidates and ended its effort.
In September, board members Sampson, Carl P. Paladino, John B. Licata, Theresa Harris-Tigg and McCarthy wanted to know why Guinn, a consultant, was signing district documents and timecards, why she was being copied on administrative emails to principals, and presiding over the superintendent’s Cabinet meetings.
Since then, Sampson, Paladino, Licata and McCarthy have been adamant in their opposition to Guinn’s hiring. The district’s consultant contract with Cross and Joftus was terminated the following month.
Paladino and McCarthy accused Guinn of lying when she told them she was initially advised she had the authority to sign district documents. Paladino said he also held Guinn responsible for failed grant applications to the state and cited a harassment charge levied against her by former grants administrator Debra S. Sykes.
Nevergold said she doesn’t believe that Guinn ever deliberately misled anyone and said while some take issue with her interpersonal skills, few take issue with her competence.
She also said it was important to keep in mind that Guinn’s time with the district is limited to 90 days.
Nevergold pointed out that the board had agreed back in October to allow Guinn to return to the district for a 90-day period to wrap up her ongoing work after the board abruptly terminated its contract with Cross & Joftus. But a few board members who initially supported that idea changed their minds as months passed.
Under the Cross & Joftus contract, Guinn was to be paid $290,359, plus thousands of dollars in additional travel and lodging expenses. Under the new arrangement, Guinn will be paid a prorated annual salary of $175,000, which equates to about $43,150 for her three-month stint.