Despite its approval of Superintendent Pamela Brown’s five-year improvement plan for Buffalo schools, the School Board last week presented its strongest challenge to Brown’s authority, voting against her recommendations that tenure be delayed for five principals and denied for one assistant principal.
“You have to have a fair and judicious process, an objective process,” board member Carl Paladino said. “The board’s not trying to micromanage. The board is trying to set and revise a policy so that the policy is fair and just.”
The board’s decisions on tenure were construed by many as an erosion in the board’s confidence of the superintendent. Most of the votes were 5-3 against her recommendations.
It is unusual for a majority of board members to repeatedly vote against a superintendent’s personnel recommendations, and no one could recall a time when a majority of the board voted against all nontenure recommendations presented as part of the district’s routine, administrative personnel report.
Board member Jason McCarthy said the administration’s last-minute recommendations, which give employees and board members little time to make decisions, is a recurring problem with Brown.
“Enough is enough,” he said. “Everyone is frustrated and tired. This was an opportunity for the board to say, ‘That’s it.’ ”
Four elementary principals, including the principals of North Park Middle Academy 66, Hillery Park Elementary School 27, Dr. Charles R. Drew Science Magnet School 90, and Hamlin Park School 74, were recommended for a probation extension. So was the principal of Riverside High School.
An assistant principal at East High School was recommended for the denial of tenure, which would have led to his termination.
Board members rejected all those recommendations.
Such actions are often construed as micromanagement by the board, which is generally supposed to serve as an oversight and policy-making body whose direct personnel management responsibilities extend primarily to the superintendent’s position.
But board members who voted against Brown’s recommendations described the administration’s position on these principals as inflexible, uncompromising and unreasonable. Paladino accused administrators evaluating the principals of exhibiting “bias” in their findings.
Board member Mary Ruth Kapsiak, a former Buffalo school administrator, said it’s the board’s role to ensure that the district is dealing with employees in a fair manner and to gather all the facts.
“We’re dealing with the livelihood of people, and we’re dealing with things that might need to be corrected,” she said. “I take my position very seriously. As a board member, I’m not here to micromanage, but I am here to hear both sides of the story. The board has to step in, at some point in time, when the district is not moving in the direction it should be moving.”
She did not, however, lay blame at Brown’s feet.
“The superintendent is one individual,” she said. “She has people working for her. This is not a reflection on the superintendent.”
Other board members, however, said it’s clear that the board’s confidence in the district’s leadership has taken a hit in recent weeks.
Initially, district lawyers said they believed the board’s refusal to extend the probation of principals, or deny tenure to an assistant principal, would result in them receiving tenure through “estoppel.”
That means the principals would automatically receive tenure because district leaders took no action regarding their tenure status for three years from the time they started in their positions.
But Darren Brown, the district’s chief of talent management, said the board’s actions Wednesday may not automatically result in tenure for these principals.
The district is consulting with an outside education lawyer to determine the future status of these principals, he said, pointing out that the district did follow the legal steps required to delay or deny tenure.
The fact that board members didn’t vote for these principals to remain on probation or to be denied tenure does not mean the administrators will automatically receive tenure unless the superintendent recommends it, he said.
“Just because the board says ‘no’ doesn’t mean the person gets tenure,” he said.
He also said the district previously used local evaluation tools in determining the merits of an administrator’s work and has since moved to a national evaluation tool that takes into consideration a school’s overall performance.
The split-decision votes cast Wednesday did not involve the same board members voting yes or no each time, though in general, board members Paladino, Kapsiak, McCarthy and James Sampson voted against the district’s recommendations, and board members Barbara Seals Nevergold, Florence Johnson and Sharon Belton-Cottman voted in favor. Board member Theresa Harris-Tigg said she abstained, though her vote counted against the district.
President Nevergold, who voted in favor of the district’s recommendations in all cases but one, said she believes part of the reason so many board members voted against the recommendations is because so many board members are new.
The board last reviewed the tenure recommendations of the district in June through a series of hearings. But the makeup of the board changed in July.
“In my estimation, that contributed to some confusion and some hesitation regarding a decision that impacted people’s careers,” she said. “I think the process that followed is the process that has always been followed.”