Last October, it seemed nearly certain that Mary E. Guinn’s involvement with the Buffalo Public Schools had ended.
After spending about six months working as a consultant for the district, Guinn’s consulting firm moved Oct. 8 to cancel its contract amid questions about her role and the responsibilities she had taken on in the temporary position.
Roughly two weeks later, Superintendent Pamela C. Brown denied speculation that she planned to bring Guinn back as her deputy superintendent.
“There is not a plan for her to serve in an interim deputy role,” Brown said at the time.
But state records suggest that the pair, even then, may have had other ideas for Guinn’s future with the Buffalo schools.
On Oct. 16, Guinn applied to the state Education Department for the administrative credentials needed to fill the position of deputy superintendent.
After Guinn’s departure, no one publicly heard much more about her until late last month, when Brown brought her appointment as interim deputy superintendent before the School Board – less than two weeks after the state granted her certification as a professional school district leader Feb. 14.
Brown says she will continue the search for a permanent deputy. But the new information about the sequence of events and the timing of Guinn’s certification – which the state provided at the request of The Buffalo News – raises questions about Brown’s intentions now for Guinn and whether she has planned to hire her all along, despite her insistence that she was looking for other candidates. Both the superintendent and her new deputy were vague this week when asked about Guinn’s long-term future with the district.
“What’s interesting to me is that they kept in touch, but maybe they had a personal friendship,” said School Board member John B. Licata. “ ‘Alice in Wonderland’ summed it up best: ‘Curiouser and curiouser.’ ”
What’s more, Brown has said that HealthNow led the initial search to fill the spot, but leaders with the company say that the superintendent misrepresented their role and that they did not feel their efforts were taken seriously.
“There was somewhat of a level of frustration,” said Julie R. Snyder, the company’s director of corporate relations. “It’s fair to say that it became apparent that the way we had approached the search was not needed.”
Brown and Guinn did not immediately respond to a request to comment Thursday, but school district spokeswoman Elena Cala said in a statement that in the fall the board authorized the superintendent to bring Guinn back as a consultant for a limited period. She apparently was referring to a board plan to let Guinn come back just long enough tie up some loose ends.
“Dr. Guinn applied for New York State certification because she wanted to be able to carry out all of the functions of the position,” the statement read. “It is not unusual for consultants or administrators to hold multiple certifications, and this is one of four Dr. Guinn currently holds. She has had as many as six.
“As stated at this week’s press conference, Dr. Guinn’s objective is to do the work in the time designated.”
Guinn first came to the district in March 2013 as a consultant working for Cross & Joftus, a firm brought on to help the superintendent with a restructuring of the Central Office. Three outside foundations – the John R. Oishei Foundation, the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo and Say Yes to Education – collectively donated more than $550,000 for the contract, putting Guinn’s prorated salary higher than the superintendent’s.
As part of that contract, Guinn was to take on some of the responsibilities of a deputy superintendent and assist with the search for someone to fill the position permanently. The position had been vacant since Folasade Oladele resigned in 2011.
Guinn started working with HealthNow on the search around the time of her arrival. HealthNow’s then-CEO, Alphonso O’Neil-White, volunteered his company to help with the search as a public service to the district. The company requested a job description and then used multiple channels to look for candidates.
But after about six months, it became clear to the company that the district was not supporting HealthNow’s efforts to conduct a vigorous search. The company presented the district with three potential candidates and ended its effort.
“We played a role, but we were not the driver,” Snyder said. “When it became apparent that we really weren’t helping move anything along, we finished our volunteer work.”
At the time of the search, Brown said the district got more than 35 applications in response to job postings and conducted phone interviews with a small group of finalists. School Board member Carl P. Paladino said that state education leaders had suggested at least one candidate for the position.
Last week, however, the superintendent said that candidates were hesitant to come to the Buffalo schools because of the political climate.
Brown originally intended to fill the position by June but then said she planned to expand the search. She kept Guinn on as a consultant under a one-year contract set to expire in June 2014, with the district paying Guinn’s salary after the foundation grants expired.
Guinn’s work with the district, however, started to raise questions among board members, who felt that she was taking on too much authority as a consultant. She signed off on payroll documents, directed employees and presided over administrative and School Board committee meetings.
Eventually, conditions soured for Brown, as well, culminating in a September board vote on a resolution to terminate her employment, and she kept her job in a 5-4 vote of the board. The following month, some board members turned their attention back to Guinn. The board was looking at terminating its contract with Cross & Joftus at the time the company withdrew its involvement with the district.
Even then, board member Jason M. McCarthy said, Brown periodically brought Guinn up to the board’s executive committee, saying she wanted to bring her back. “She knew she was bringing Mary Guinn back; it was just a matter of when and how,” McCarthy said. “I don’t think there was ever a search for a deputy superintendent, as we asked. I don’t think she was ever looking for anyone else, even if that’s what she told us.”
Little was publicly heard of Guinn until late last month when Brown – in what some called a surprise move – brought her appointment up for approval by the board. Guinn’s contract was approved with the same five votes that supported Brown in September.
In subsequent media briefings, Brown defended her selection of Guinn, applauding her experience and accomplishments in education.
That includes serving as superintendent in Gary, Ind., for more than five years, until the board there voted not to renew her contract, citing declining test scores.
She then worked in Tulsa, Okla., where private donors covered the costs to buy out her contract. She was then named head of a New Orleans charter school, a position she resigned after six months, with one school official telling local media that the board had questions about the school’s goals under Guinn’s leadership.
Prior to working for Cross & Joftus, Guinn was an educational consultant for Evans Newton, where she worked with several administrators who later came to Buffalo.
Brown has emphasized that Guinn’s appointment is temporary and says the search for a permanent deputy superintendent is continuing.
In response to questions from the media at Tuesday’s news conference to announce her rehiring, Guinn was vague about whether she is interested.