City schools’ lost savings blamed on administrators’ job protections - The Buffalo News

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City schools’ lost savings blamed on administrators’ job protections

One of the reasons the reorganization of the Buffalo Public Schools administration ended up costing taxpayers $1.6 million instead of saving $2 million is that many longtime administrators were protected.

School Board members and some elected officials exerted pressure on Superintendent Pamela C. Brown not to let go of administrators who would have lost their jobs under the reorganization plan that Brown developed with a consulting firm, according to past and present School Board members, as well as the head of the consulting firm. Union contracts and community feedback also presented obstacles, they said.

“Dr. Brown has to work within the constraints of real personalities, real people, real contracts, and real political pressure that she needs to navigate on a daily basis,” said Scott Joftus, whose consulting firm, Cross & Joftus, designed the reorganization.

Brown said she and the consultants received feedback from board members, staff, community leaders and parents, but that was by design because the reorganization was supposed to incorporate their input.

“Certainly, in the discussions we had, once we started attaching names to particular positions, the board – having more experience with these positions than I had – shared with me some skills and competencies certain people had that should be taken into consideration,” she said. “But I can truthfully say I was granted quite a bit of flexibility in regard to the structure of the organization and the assignment of staff to those positions.”

Others, though, said the lobbying to keep people on staff was strong.

“I was excited to hear that, at one point, we were going to save $1 million,” said board member Sharon Belton-Cottman. “But in the end, there was a lot of pressure being placed on the superintendent.”

At one public meeting, she said, an assemblyman stood up and encouraged the superintendent to look after longtime employees who have been loyal to the district.

“It was clear that there were certain people who had been in positions for over 20 years, and they were to be protected,” Belton-Cottman said.

There was an attempt to override those pressures, but it didn’t work.

Not long after Brown arrived in Buffalo, those around her realized she lacked the political savvy to make the kind of cuts that she wanted to make, several sources said. That was a primary reason why Cross & Joftus brought in Mary Guinn last spring.

“When I met with Mary Guinn when she first came to town, what came out of her mouth almost first thing was that she was here to end the ‘friends and family plan,’ ” said Lloyd Hargrave, a longtime parent activist in the district. “That didn’t happen.”

But now that the reorganization is under way and criticism has mounted over the reorganization itself as well as the consultant’s hefty fees, Cross & Joftus, and Guinn, are gone.

How it started

Not long after Pamela Brown was hired last summer as superintendent, Cross & Joftus was brought in to assist her.

Say Yes to Education, a nonprofit organization that has also helped Syracuse meet the challenges of turning around its schools, had a hand in hiring both Brown and Cross & Joftus.

One of the first tasks for the consulting firm was to develop the reorganization plan, which it did.

But it appears Cross & Joftus grossly underestimated the Buffalo environment when the firm first suggested in the spring the district could save $2.1 million by reorganizing the central office.

The consultants eventually realized there was a lot of red tape, and many internal and external interest groups offering aggressive input to advance their own recommendations and agendas. Administrators, union leaders, board members, outside organizations, politicians – everyone wanted input, Joftus said.

In March, Joftus said, he informed Brown that the reorganization would “conservatively” save the district $2.1 million.

Joftus, Brown and Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, the president of Say Yes, recently said they would provide The News with a copy of Joftus’ report detailing how the reorganization was to save $2.1 million – but none did.

Joftus said he regrets how expectations for the reorganization were laid out in the beginning.

“We did not support Dr. Brown effectively enough in communicating the roll out of this plan, which is even to this point, a work in progress,” he said.

And what about the $2.1 million savings goal that has since been scaled down?

“At the time, we thought that was a good estimate,” Joftus said, “and I still believe that the district is going to get to a point where it’s close to that number.

“But decisions were made to back off some of the aggressiveness in the plan, to address the real politics and the real human dynamics that are in any large system.”

Brown added, “Anytime you look at changing the structure of an organization, in this case, you know dramatic change is needed, but at the same time, you have to think about how much change a district can afford at one time.”

When the superintendent first discussed some conceptual changes to her administration, the plan did not include any names, School Board president Barbara Seals Nevergold said. But once names started filling out the organizational chart and Brown asked all administrators to reapply for their jobs, more people started voicing concerns.

“Certainly, people lobbied,” Nevergold said. “People lobby for positions. They call on their supporters. That’s human nature, and that occurs in many organizations. That went on, most certainly.”

Members of the current School Board, as well as some former members who served through the end of June, say that they or their colleagues spoke up on behalf of certain administrators.

For instance, several board members say they advocated for Jim Kane, who had long served as chief of staff in the district, to keep his job.

“The board felt Jim Kane brought a lot of political awareness and depth and knowledge of the district,” said board member Jason McCarthy. “Someone with his kind of institutional knowledge is almost irreplaceable.”

He and others said they believed that the area Kane works in – operations – runs well, and therefore should not be subject to cuts. In his position as the day-to-day manager of district affairs, he was often the point-man for board members needing answers and solutions.

Strong political ties

Board critics point out that Kane’s political ties run deep. Among his connections: his sister, former Common Council member Bonnie Lockwood, now works for Rep. Brian Higgins. If Kane lost his job in the district, one source said, the mayor’s office would have had to find a position for him.

Kane retained a position in the district, but Brown took him out of her cabinet, demoted him, and cut his pay by $13,000.

Ralph R. Hernandez, who was voted off the board this year, said he advocated for former Bennett High School principal David Mauricio, who now serves in central office as a chief of school leadership, and for Will Keresztes, chief of student support services.

“I thought David Mauricio was excellent because of his experience as a high school principal,” Hernandez said. “I always thought Will Keresztes was a man of integrity. Whenever you asked him to take care of something, it was done within 48 hours.”

Some other board members acknowledge that outside forces sought to influence personnel decisions but never personally tried to sway those decisions.

“I wouldn’t be truthful if I didn’t say there were certain concerns about specific individuals, whether they would remain in the upper cabinet or move into other positions,” Nevergold said.

Mary Ruth Kapsiak was the president of the board in the spring, when Brown announced plans to reorganize the central office.

A longtime administrator in the district, Kapsiak worked alongside many of the district’s employees over the years.

When the board first got information in the spring about Brown’s reorganization plans, Kapsiak said, the superintendent did not indicate which people would be filling which positions.

“That was a problem,” Kapsiak said. “You could not talk about a position without a name there. Knowing who would be affected, in my opinion, would be key. My only concern was that we needed to know who would be filling the positions, if it would be someone local or someone from out of town.”

Several other board members said they were heavily lobbied by a variety of people in the community to protect certain administrators.

Even though other board members said they heard from people in the community trying to protect top administrators and even though she served as School Board president during the roll-out of the reorganization, Kapsiak said not a single person from in the community lobbied her.

“I didn’t have anybody in the community come to me about positions,” Kapsiak said. “I did have people in the district come to me, saying they would like to be promoted. If I know it’s a person I’ve worked with and they’ve done a great job, I would certainly say to them, please apply.”

She also said she never tried to protect anyone during the reorganization, although she acknowledged encouraging people to apply.

“I would not put myself in a position to say I advocate or do not advocate for a person,” she said. “Because someone else in the district would say, ‘Well, why didn’t you advocate for me?’ ”

But at board meetings, Kapsiak regularly scrutinizes administrative personnel changes, and often asks the board to move into executive session to discuss specific hires, promotions and transfers.

“She understands the inner workings of the district. Everybody comes to see her, almost like a godmother,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. “If she wants you to move forward, she makes that known.”

Political lobbying by board members, administrators and other outside organizations weren’t the only stumbling blocks the reorganization faced.

Union and contractual employment issues apparently came as a surprise to both Cross & Joftus and to the superintendent.

Many reorganization concepts fell by the wayside because so many central office administrators belong to unions with strict rules about who can do what and to whom they may report, said Joftus and human resources administrator Darren Brown.

Though the Maryland-based consulting firm has dealt with many school districts across the country, Joftus said his firm had not previously encountered an administration that is unionized through so many levels of upper management.

Crystal Barton, president of the Buffalo Council of Supervisors and Administrators, did not return several calls seeking comment.

Darren Brown, the human resources administrator, said that some reorganization concepts had to be abandoned because they weren’t allowed under union contract.

“You have to follow the hierarchy chain,” Brown said. “At one time we had a project administrator reporting to a supervisor, and you can’t have that.”

It was also not possible to rewrite job descriptions to the point that an employee who belongs to one union is doing work that belongs to another union, Darren Brown said.

It was also difficult to remove union administrators from the district without getting into a fight, Joftus said.

The goodwill of union leaders was necessary to create the district’s new Office of School Leadership, a cornerstone of the reorganization’s primary goal of providing more direct support to schools, Joftus said.

The Office of School Leadership was established to provide quick assistance to individual schools.

Superintendent Brown said the Office of School Leadership turned out exactly as she had hoped, and providing that additional support to schools is what matters most.

“I would hope that everyone felt it was a fair and transparent process,” she said, “and that the focus really was on making sure we had the right persons in the right positions to make sure we could do the right things for children.”

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