If the Buffalo School Board hadn’t taken action late Wednesday night to essentially rehire all of its top school leadership in their current job titles, some people would have lost their jobs, and Superintendent Pamela Brown’s central office reorganization would have fallen to pieces.
That’s the upshot of a long, closed-door board discussion in which outside education lawyer Karl W. Kristoff took the superintendent and board leadership to school.
Board members said they were troubled and frustrated to learn at Wednesday night’s board meeting that the district had been engaged in a long history of improper hiring practices. Those mistakes forced the board to formally appoint 22 top district leaders, many of whom have worked in the district for years.
“Of course, we’re all very concerned because it involved staff and the potential loss of jobs, as Mr. Kristoff indicated,” said board President Barbara Seals Nevergold. “But I think it also identified some historic systemic problems. It puts us in a position now to address issues that have been long-standing.”
Kristoff told the district leadership that:
• While the superintendent is free to hire her own top administrative team, all the jobs must be clearly funded in the line-item budget approved by the School Board. That didn’t happen in at least two cases, placing new hires in jeopardy.
• Before a superintendent can hire high-level, non-union administrators, there must be an official ruling or an agreement with the unions that these positions are excluded from union jurisdiction. For the most part, those agreements didn’t exist.
“If we had not approved that resolution you got, the net result is that at least two of the people would have lost their jobs, and everybody would have reverted to their original positions in the organization,” said board member James Sampson. “The reorganization would have collapsed, and the district would have been in utter chaos.”
Kristoff said it would be unfair to lay the blame for this huge personnel error solely at the feet of Brown, since it appears her predecessors were guilty of the same errors.
“She’s not the first superintendent who has labored under this misconception,” he said.
Persistent questions raised by board member Carl Paladino regarding the reorganization, however, led to further legal research on the matter. Prior to Kristoff’s review, the district’s own internal lawyers had found no legal problems regarding the superintendent’s hiring process.
Board member Jason McCarthy said Kristoff, an attorney with Hodgson Russ, had offered to advise the district in its reorganization effort as early as May but received no response.
Both he and Paladino voted against Wednesday’s hiring resolution, which was approved 7-2. They said they didn’t want to give blanket hiring approval for all top administrators when they didn’t believe all of them deserved to keep their jobs.
Ultimately, the board approved the employment of 22 administrators who collectively earn more than $2.4 million. Everyone from the district’s chief officer of finance and operations down to the superintendent’s special assistant were approved in a single board vote.
The resolution requires Brown to draw up new employment contracts with each employee, though the board also stipulated that their salaries would remain unchanged.
“There were issues in some of those contracts that weren’t addressed,” Kristoff said, though he declined to say what the issues were.
In a statement on the matter, Brown said, “I’m glad that Mr. Kristoff was able to add clarity to the situation and that the board was forward-thinking in their action.”
She didn’t offer an explanation as to how her reorganization lacked appropriate legal vetting or how the district will correct the matter going forward.
Nevergold, however, said Brown based her decisions on how things have been traditionally done in the district.
“Some of the changes and decisions she made were based on past practice, but unfortunately, some of the past practice was rooted in errors,” she said. “The next board can be assured that whatever problems that we faced – which we were able to face before major damage was done – will not be repeated.”
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