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Mary Guinn is a consultant to the Buffalo School District, but she earns more than the superintendent. In fact, she and the consulting firm she works for are costing taxpayers nearly half a million dollars a year.

From her office in City Hall, she has signed off on payroll documents, directed district employees and presided over top-level administrative and Board of Education committee meetings.

Now, some members of the board are questioning her authority and will attempt to get rid of her at tonight’s board meeting.

Superintendent Pamela Brown defended Guinn and her company, Cross and Joftus, as providing valuable services to the district.

“It is not usual, at all, to have someone who serves in a coaching role in a district that has gone through a reorganization as massive as the one we are in the final phase of right now,” she told the board last week.

But at least four of nine board members may now vote to terminate her contract after spending nearly an hour grilling Brown and Guinn last week about Guinn’s role.

“I have a significant concern about why we have, effectively, a leadership coach for people who ought to be able to do their job when they walk into it,” said board member James Sampson, who is introducing a resolution tonight to terminate Guinn. “That’s a lot of money.”

Guinn is responsible for overseeing the extensive central office reorganization and coaching four top administrators who provide direct “one-stop-shop” support to individual schools.

She was hired in March with private grant money through Say Yes, the Oishei Foundation and Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo. Guinn was to serve as interim deputy superintendent for three months while the district hunted for a permanent deputy.

But no deputy was ever hired. Instead, Brown asked Guinn to stay on as a consultant and agreed to pay Cross and Joftus $432,000 for a one-year period ending in June 2014. The prior School Board approved this arrangement.

“We weren’t trying to fool anybody,” said Scott Joftus, president of the consulting firm. “We submitted information on budget to the district, and the board and administration obviously felt that was a reasonable amount to pay for the services we were providing.”

The main contract, a boilerplate document with a series of empty blanks and no performance benchmarks, was ridiculed by board member Carl Paladino at a committee meeting last week as “the worst contract I’ve ever seen.”

The agreement refers to Guinn’s role “to support the district’s central office restructuring and ongoing school transformation” and “supervise and coach cabinet members.”

The contract covers the compensation of Guinn, Joftus and a company analyst.

Of the overall amount, $290,359 is paid to Guinn, excluding thousands of dollars in additional travel and lodging expenses.

Guinn, who lives in Little Rock, Ark., charged the district nearly $10,000 in travel expenses for July and August, according to Cross and Joftus. That includes $3,708 for her stay at the Embassy Suites hotel.

Board members Sampson, Paladino, John Licata, Theresa Harris-Tigg and Jason McCarthy didn’t just express concerns over the contract costs.

They wanted to know why Guinn was signing district documents and time cards, why she is being copied on administrative emails to principals, and why she has presided over the superintendent’s executive cabinet meetings and a School Board committee meeting.

“I think part of the confusion out there is, you’re signing payroll as a consultant,” Licata said. “That’s a rather unusual step for anyone to do. If things are piling up, that’s something to be brought to Dr. Brown’s attention. And if there’s a deputy superintendent necessary to address these things, is the search still continuing?

“Regardless of the value of your services, your pay is almost double what we’re paying the superintendent, the person we searched through this country to find, hire.”

Brown earns $217,500 a year. She has stated she would be willing to end the search for a deputy superintendent if the district would hire a second public relations administrator this week.

Licata said if the superintendent needs an assistant to supervise her administration, she could hire one for much less than what the district is paying Cross and Joftus.

Brown pointed out that Guinn’s contract is being covered by a state grant for leadership development, not by district operating funds. She also referred to Guinn’s daily rate of $1,117, saying that is less than, or in line with, what other consultants charge.

Sampson responded, “My concern is, this is a lot of money, and I don’t really care whether it’s paid for by a grant or New York State. It’s still taxpayer money.”

Other board members, however, defended Guinn by saying that as a consultant, it’s appropriate for her to review documents and be copied on the emails of supervisors she’s supposed to be coaching.

They also compared her compensation to that of Distinguished Educator Judy Elliott, a consultant the district was required to hire by the state Education Department.

“I do think we need to extend this conversation to another consultant that has a great deal of impact and importance in the district; it’s not a consultant of our choosing,” said board President Barbara Seals Nevergold.

According to district documents, Elliott charges a higher daily rate than Guinn – $1,520 compared with $1,117. But Elliott does not work full time in the district and charges much less for travel and lodging. For a 10-month period from August 2012 to May 2013, Elliott has charged the district $146,205 for her working hours and travel costs.

Joftus said Guinn’s expenses will be significantly reduced in October because she will be staying in an apartment instead of at a hotel.

Currently, Guinn is sharing her Embassy Suites lodging with Yamilette Williams, the district’s new chief of curriculum, who used to work with Guinn and was recruited by Guinn as part of the reorganization.

In October, Williams will be renting an apartment while Guinn will be subletting a room for the duration of her time in Buffalo, Joftus said. In the meantime, he said, Williams is contributing toward a portion of the hotel lodging costs.

In regard to Guinn signing district documents, Guinn said she received legal advice from former general counsel Chris Putrino saying that it was OK.

“He indicated to me that as long as things were internal, and there was no one who was available to sign documents, that it was permissible,” Guinn said.

But an email in July from Putrino to Chief Financial Officer Barbara Smith states that he “would STRONGLY recommend against” Guinn approving district expenditures.

Joftus said he believes Guinn got legal clearance, but added, “If we had to do it again, we would not have done that.”

Guinn has served as an educational consultant with Evans Newton, then Cross and Joftus, since July 2012. She has also served in various roles as principal and deputy superintendent for various districts.

“In spite of any questions that exist,” Guinn told the board last week, “I have worked very hard throughout my career, and I have documented facts of the progress that has been made throughout the district.”

She was superintendent in Gary, Ind., for more than five years, until 2004, when the board voted not to renew her contract, citing declining test scores as a factor in the decision.

She then worked in Tulsa, Okla., for five years as deputy superintendent for strategic planning. During that time, she said, the number of “priority schools” in bad standing with the state fell from 36 to six.

She lost her post there in a restructuring.

In September 2011, she was named head of Esperanza Charter School in New Orleans. She resigned after less than a year.

Guinn has previously been named a finalist for the superintendent’s post in Monroe, La., and also was a finalist for the superintendent’s post in Kansas City, Mo., in 2009.

Joftus said experienced people like Guinn are frequently necessary to help school districts cope with major organizational change. That sort of help costs money, he said.

“In order to have people of that caliber,” he said, “that’s what it takes.”

For more on Guinn’s background and the district agreement with Cross and Joftus, visit the School Zone blog at www.buffalonews.com/schoolzone. email: stan@buffnews.com