An outraged Buffalo School Board on Tuesday delayed making a decision on a contract for the distinguished educator that outlines a pay rate of $190 an hour, plus $275 a day in travel expenses.
The board appeared to be reeling from a combination of sticker shock and indignation from having the contract imposed on them by state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr.
Distinguished educator Judy L. Elliott, former chief academic officer in Los Angeles, is to begin work in Buffalo on Aug. 1. Her appointment is one of several conditions that King outlined in May for Buffalo to receive several million dollars in federal school improvement grants for 2012-13.
Several board members noted they have never met Elliott and had no role in her selection.
"I really am offended by how this is being executed," said at-large board member Florence Johnson. "We never had an opportunity to discuss it. Everything is being done without our input, without our participation."
The state in June appointed Elliott as distinguished educator in Buffalo, but the district must pay her. Buffalo is the first district in New York to get a distinguished educator, though state officials have said several more that are also experiencing major academic problems are likely to get one soon.
Board members said that after reading Elliott's nine-page contract, they feared she would essentially be running the district. And they noted that her contract requires her to be in Buffalo only 25 days between Aug. 1 and Dec. 31. Some board members speculated she would be doing some of her work "sitting by the pool"; Elliott lives in Florida and consults with districts around the country.
"It seems the most troubling aspect of this agreement is that this individual, working from wherever, will be making determinations about what is best," said at-large board member John B. Licata. "I think this is a bureaucratic train wreck waiting to happen. This is ridiculous. This is a ridiculous exercise of power."
Elliott's attorney, Christ Gaetanos, said she would be acting in an advisory role – not running the district.
"She does not control anything," he said in an interview. "She is here to analyze and make recommendations, which the board is free to respond to and the commissioner is also free to respond to."
The state set many of the parameters of her appointment, officials on both sides said, but her salary was negotiated locally. Elliott's initial compensation request was "significantly higher," according to Christopher Putrino, the district's general counsel.
"Dr. Elliott's ordinary pay is close to double that. I can tell you that the $190 is a lot less than she makes in other assignments around the country," Gaetanos said. "It is true that other employees get paid less, but they get an office, employee protections, health benefits and other things." He said the contract does not outline how many hours she would work. He noted, however, that she has other consulting jobs and would not be spending all her time on Buffalo.
Elliott will be working part time as a consultant, but that pay rate – which would work out to $395,200 annually if she were working full time – is nearly double what Superintendent Pamela C. Brown makes.
Board members Licata, Rosalyn Taylor and Sharon Cottman said they would vote against the contract – and others seemed inclined to follow suit. One board member noted at one point that there were not enough votes to approve it.
But the board never voted on the contract. Following the public discussion of the contract, the board met in executive session for half an hour. When they resumed the public portion of the meeting, Kapsiak said there would be no vote on Tuesday.
Ralph R. Hernandez, who represents the West District, said he is going to call King today to ask for a few extra days. Elliott will be in Buffalo around Aug. 5, he said, and the board would like to meet with her and have some questions answered before proceeding.
On an unrelated issue Tuesday, the board voted, 5-2, to approve "reasonable relocation and housing expenses" for Brown until she finds permanent housing. Cottman and Hernandez voted against it. Jason McCarthy and Barbara Nevergold were not at the meeting.
In an interview after the meeting, Brown said she looked at several properties this weekend in North Buffalo and along the waterfront.
"I am definitely making progress in my search for housing," she said. "It's my goal to make sure I secure housing as soon as possible."