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Contract approved for distinguished educator; Elliott will not run the district, but will still wield considerable influence on School Board

The School Board on Thursday approved a contract with distinguished educator Judy L. Elliott, agreeing to pay her $190 an hour plus $275 a day in expenses.

All six board members present at the special meeting voted in favor of the contract, with at-large Board Member Florence Johnson voting yes "under protest."

"I pray this is not a political move and an exertion of power for increasing one's status," Johnson said, expressing concern over state Regent Robert M. Bennett's avid interest in the Buffalo Public Schools.

Superintendent Pamela C. Brown and four board members had a conference call Tuesday with Elliott and state Assistant Education Commissioner Ira Schwartz. Brown said that during that call, Schwartz described Elliott's role as that of a facilitator and a consultant. Elliott later called Brown, the superintendent said.

"Dr. Elliott reached out to me," Brown said. "She reiterated that her role was to facilitate, be an extra pair of hands, be serving in a collaborative capacity."

Some board members Thursday said they wanted that in writing.

"I would like us to ask for a response in writing to those questions, and then we can all be clear what the answers were," said at-large Board Member Barbara Seals Nevergold.

Buffalo is the first district in New York State to have a distinguished educator.

Because the position is so new, many questions about it abound. Here are answers to some of them:

>Why is Buffalo getting a distinguished educator?

The idea behind the distinguished educator program is to appoint a seasoned educator to help improve student achievement in a low-performing school or district.

The state education commissioner has the authority to appoint a distinguished educator when a district or a school has failed to make adequate yearly progress for at least four years, under a state law that was enacted five years ago.

Commissioner John B. King Jr. appointed Elliott as the distinguished educator for the Buffalo Public Schools because the district has not made adequate yearly progress "and has been unable to develop and fully and effectively implement suitable intervention plans for its [persistently lowest achieving] schools," according to her contract.

>Do any other districts have a distinguished educator?

Buffalo will be the first school district in New York State to have a distinguished educator. Bennett said nearly a year ago that as many as 10 districts are likely to get a distinguished educator – but so far, Buffalo is the only district to get one.

Several other states, including Kentucky, Louisiana and North Carolina, have had a distinguished educator program or something similar to it for many years. Kentucky was among the first states to implement such a program, about 20 years ago.

In New York State, the state education commissioner can appoint a distinguished educator to a district or a particular school. In many of the other states with a similar program, a distinguished educator is assigned to a specific school.

>What role will the distinguished educator have?

In Buffalo, Elliott is to work with the superintendent and the board to analyze data, review systems and structures that are in place, help increase student achievement, and recommend "administrative and operational improvements," according to various state Education Department documents and her contract. She will also serve as an ex-officio, non-voting member of the School Board.

>To whom will the distinguished educator report?

She will report to the state education commissioner. Within 45 days of her appointment (by mid-September), she is required to file an action plan outlining her goals for helping the district improve student performance, according to information provided by the state.

Once that's approved by the state, the district will get a copy of the plan. She is to consult with the district while developing the plan, but the district does not have the authority to approve or reject it.

In addition to submitting an action plan to the state, Elliott must file quarterly reports with the commissioner.

>Why does Buffalo need another plan?

The district already has its own plan outlining how it will allocate resources to improve student achievement. The difference between the district's plan and Elliott's plan is that her plan will detail what support she will provide to the district, according to information posted by the state.

Elliott is to review or help develop the district's improvement plan – and either endorse it as is or recommend changes to the School Board and the commissioner.

>Will the distinguished educator be running the district?

No. Elliott will not have any direct power. She can't make personnel decisions, for instance.

However, if Elliott recommends changes to the district's improvement plan, the School Board has to either make the changes she recommends or provide the commissioner with a written explanation of why it is not making those changes.

At that point, "the commissioner will direct the district to modify the plans as recommended by the distinguished educator unless the commissioner finds that the written explanation provided by the district has compelling merit," according to information posted by the state.

>How much will she be paid?

She will be paid $190 an hour (which works out to $1,520 for an eight-hour day), plus $275 in expenses, according to the contract the board approved on Thursday. Elliott, who lives in Tampa, Fla., will also be reimbursed for airfare "and other related expenses" that accompany her duties.

>How many days will she work?

She must spend at least 25 days in Buffalo between now and Dec. 31, according to her contract.

There is no limit on how many days she may work.

Her attorney as well as district officials have said she could end up doing some work for the district remotely, meaning she would not necessarily be in Buffalo to do some of it.

>Who will foot the bill?

The district must pay "consulting fees … and reimbursement for [her] meals, lodging and travel expenses," according to the regulations of the state education commissioner.

Brown said the district will write those costs into a grant.

>How long will she be here?

The commissioner has appointed Elliott for one year. He may reappoint her for up to a total of three years.