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School Board OK's contract to find superintendent, but concerns arise

The School Board on Wednesday voted, 8-1, to approve a superintendent search contract that raised concerns among some about a possible appearance of a conflict of interest, because an outside group will pick up as much as half the cost of a search.

The district will pay $30,000 to Cascade Consulting.

Say Yes to Education will cover all additional costs, which could total about as much as the district's share. Those expenses could include travel, meals and accommodations for Cascade, as well as mailing costs, phone charges and copying fees.

In addition, Say Yes will reimburse the cost of travel and accommodations for superintendent candidates who come to Buffalo to interview.

Barbara Seals Nevergold, an at-large member, said she was concerned that Say Yes would be paying Cascade directly and the board would not know the dollar amount.

"I think it would be good for the board to know that amount," she said. "My concern is about the independence of the board and the appearance of a conflict of interest."

Say Yes is the nonprofit group that announced in December it will partner with the Buffalo Public Schools. The group is conducting reviews of several areas in the district, including finance, curriculum, special education and human resources. It plans to begin holding Community Leadership Council meetings this spring or summer.

Nevergold and Ralph R. Hernandez both opposed hiring the team of Say Yes and Cascade to conduct the superintendent search, saying they had concerns about a conflict of interest.

On Wednesday, Hernandez cited the last superintendent search, which was funded by Robert Wilmers. The board has been widely criticized by people who say it let Wilmers exert too much influence over the search that identified James A. Williams and that the search was too secretive.

"How soon we forget," Hernandez said. "The last time we were this guarded about a particular contract, we all know what happened -- I have no plans on supporting this. [Say Yes] lost my support when they failed to realize this was a conflict of interest."

The board, after some discussion, agreed to add an addendum to the contract stipulating that the board would be informed about what expenses Say Yes was covering. However, that information will either be redacted or generalized so that there would be no information given to the board that could point to a candidate's location or other identifying information.

Several board members expressed concerns about the need to protect the identity of candidates.

"My concern is that confidentiality be maintained," said Sharon Belton Cottman, the Ferry District member. "Why is it our business what's going on with [Say Yes] and their recruiting efforts? I want to make sure we do not lose candidates because we breach our confidentiality clause."

Hernandez cast the sole dissenting vote on approving the contract. The board approved the contract, but with addenda that have not yet been written, including the provision indicating that the board would get an accounting of Say Yes' financial contributions to the search.