After a closed-door session that left community members and school district employees waiting for three long hours, the Buffalo School Board took a series of dramatic actions at around 11 p.m. Wednesday:
• Voted to scrap its current contract with the Cross & Joftus consulting firm and its controversial consultant, Mary Guinn. The board also agreed to have the superintendent draft a new contract with the same firm to ensure a smooth transition before Cross & Joftus exits the district. It’s unclear if Guinn will have any continuing role with the district.
• Voted to approve the hiring of 22 high-level administrators, including the superintendent’s entire executive cabinet, in response to concerns raised by outside education attorney Karl Kristoff that many of these employees may have been hired improperly.
• Agreed to end – or at least “suspend” – its practice of holding “small group” work sessions on the Mondays prior to board meetings, in which board members in groups of four or fewer meet in private to discuss the board agenda. Kristoff apparently advised the board against continuing the long-standing practice, which is specifically designed to circumvent the Open Meetings Law.
In regard to the board’s 7-2 vote to approve the hiring – essentially the re-employment – of the superintendent’s entire leadership team and others, Kristoff and board members said the action was required to address “irregularities” and “problems” associated with the employment of these high-level administrators.
The board resolution requires Superintendent Pamela Brown to draw up new employment contracts with each employee, though the board also stipulated that their salaries would remain unchanged.
Much of this is the result of fallout from the superintendent’s reorganization, though a number of executive cabinet positions have existed prior to Brown’s time and were apparently mishandled by prior superintendents, Kristoff said.
“The board took action to fix the problems,” he said.
He added that it’s unfair to lay the blame for this huge personnel error solely at the feet of Brown.
“She essentially made a technical error,” he said.
He explained that as part of her central office reorganization, Brown attempted to hire more administrators than were approved as line items in the budget. While the city school districts of Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester do not require the superintendent to answer to the board for her exempt, non-union hires, she cannot hire more people than are specifically budgeted for.
But that’s what she did.
“She’s not the first superintendent who has labored under this misconception,” Kristoff said.
Everyone from the district chief financial officer down to the superintendent’s special assistant were approved in one vote of the board.
Board members Carl Paladino and Jason McCarthy voted against the action. Paladino said he didn’t believe in voting for all these positions as a single slate.
Separately, the board voted to end its agreement with Cross & Joftus but also, apparently, to enter into another short-term agreement with the firm to provide for a smooth transition for the district.
Both Brown and board President Barbara Seals Nevergold said after the meeting that it is still to be determined what role consultant Guinn will play, if any, within the school administration going forward.
Cross & Joftus has sent a letter to Brown voluntarily withdrawing its contract with the district. But President Scott Joftus was careful in his wording Wednesday about the end of Guinn’s role in Buffalo City Schools.
“As of now,” he said, “her work has stopped under our contract with the district.”
Brown has praised the work Guinn has done on the district’s behalf since her arrival in March. But it appears a majority of board members have grave reservations based on complaints they received from other administrators regarding her authority. Guinn’s last day as a consultant with the district was Tuesday.
“We believe that our presence there has just become a distraction,” Joftus said of the firm’s decision to withdraw its contract. “And we hope that by withdrawing, it will enable them to continue working to improve the support for schools and children.”
The company, which was hired to help with the district’s central office reorganization, held a one-year, $432,000 contract that was set to expire in June. Guinn was making $290,359.
Had the company not withdrawn its contract, it is likely the School Board would have voted to terminate it during Wednesday night’s meeting.
Cross & Joftus has worked with the district since last fall, prior to Guinn’s arrival.
Back in the fall, Cross & Joftus was funded by Say Yes to Education to develop four things: a new organizational structure for the district, action plans for the superintendent’s executive cabinet, help design a new school improvement model that encouraged “earned school autonomy,” and develop a way to evaluate the work of the executive cabinet.
That work, which cost $400,000, was completed, Joftus said.
But since June, when Brown rolled out her new reorganizational model with Guinn’s assistance, the district has been subject to criticism for creating a central office structure that greatly added to the district’s payroll.
In addition, resentment built toward Guinn’s role in the administration after she stopped serving as interim deputy superintendent in June.
Joftus said his firm originally recommended an organizational structure that would have saved the district approximately $5.7 million a year. He said that number dropped to $2.1 million “after feedback from the district.”
The Buffalo News ultimately determined that the reorganization cost the district about $1.6 million in payroll costs, including employee salaries and benefits.
Guinn was responsible for supervising the implementation of the reorganization and to coach administrators in the new leadership model. She also helped recruit candidates and sat in on employee interviews.
In her “coaching” role, however, administrators chafed at the perception that an outside consultant was telling them how to do their jobs.
As a result of the controversy and cost, board member James Sampson submitted a resolution last month to terminate the agreement with Cross & Joftus, which would have been subject to a three-month notice provision.
Joftus, however, said the company would agree to withdraw immediately as long as its expenses to date are paid. Now, however, it appears there will be a continuing role for the firm, though whatever new contract is negotiated must be approved by the board.
Kristoff said this was a wise move by the board.
“We just wanted them to withdraw under some specifications and provide for a reasonable transition,” he said. “You shouldn’t take seven or eight months of work and just throw it out. That’s not how you move an organization forward.”
Finally, Nevergold announced that it will no longer hold “small group” meetings. Or at least, they are indefinitely “suspended.” The decision was clearly based on board advice received by Kristoff, though he declined to state what his recommendation was.
“Although no court with jurisdiction in Western New York has ruled that meetings such as the board’s small group meetings are improper under the Open Meetings Law,” Kristoff said, “out of deference to the view expressed by the Committee on Open Government, the board determined that it would be best to suspend those meetings.”
For a complete breakdown of Wednesday’s meeting, visit the School Zone blog at www.buffalonews.com/schoolzone email: firstname.lastname@example.org