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Pamela Brown keeps job in 5-4 vote; Schultz is out, Guinn’s job on hold

The Buffalo Board of Education meeting on Wednesday ran until after midnight. By the time it was over, several things were known: Superintendent Pamela Brown still has a job. Former City Hall public relations staffer Lorey Schultz is out of a job. And consultant Mary Guinn’s job is up in the air for another two weeks.

Buffalo City Schools Superintendent Pamela C. Brown held onto her job by one vote, leaving many to speculate about the likelihood of her long-term future in the district.

As expected, the board voted 5-4 against board member Carl Paladino’s resolution to terminate Brown without cause. She maintains her position as head of the largest school district in Western New York, though the vote reflects a lack of confidence on the part of nearly half of the governing body she answers to.

Board members Paladino, James Sampson, Jason McCarthy and John Licata voted for her dismissal, while President Barbara Seals Nevergold and members Sharon Belton-Cottman, Florence Johnson, Theresa Harris-Tigg and Mary Ruth Kapsiak voted against it.

But those who voted in favor of Brown’s dismissal said the district’s children don’t have time to wait for Brown to develop the leadership skills the district needs.

“Despite what many think, I don’t bring this motion lightly,” Paladino said, but he added that the district needs leadership and that the systemic problems facing the district are so bad that the board can’t afford to give Brown more time.”

“The Buffalo School System is in such distress that we can’t wait for on-the-job training. We can’t wait for her to learn. We can’t wait for her to be a leader,” he said.

Board member Jason McCarthy said he hears daily from principals and teachers who don’t believe the central office is giving them the support they need.

“I think what they need is true leadership,” he said.

Prior to the vote, Brown made an impassioned speech regarding her tenure. He noted her excitement in coming to the district, the severe problems she discovered and the many efforts she has made to improve the district since her hiring a year ago.

“I said, ‘This is a call to action,’” Brown said. “‘We must put forth our best effort.’”

But she said the problems facing the district are severe and that already the district has made great progress, notably in the district’s increased graduation rate to 56 percent. That sort of progress doesn’t happen at every school district in a year’s time, she said.

“Instead of all the infighting and disagreement and all of this,” she said, “we should be acknowledging the progress we’ve made in this district.”

Board member John Licata said he appreciated Brown’s eloquent defense of her leadership but wished he’d heard it sooner.

“We need to have a strong, experienced leader because I believe the problems we have are so systemic,” Licata said.

While Brown has a core base of support among some community groups, including many who believe she has made considerable progress during her one-year tenure so far, school district leadership has come under fire from the district’s parent activist group as well as state education officials.

Board member Sharon Belton-Cottman and others said Brown hasn’t been given a fair shake, that she’s made progress and deserves more time.

“This superintendent has been abused,” she said, “and she’s been abused on several levels.”

Board member Harris-Tigg agreed, saying that the debate over whether Brown should stay or go is a “sideshow” hurting children in the classroom. “It’s a distraction, and it’s inexcusable,” she said.

Board member Kapsiak called the attempts to fire Brown a “witch hunt” and said that the board members attempting to dismiss Brown are hearing from disgruntled employees who don’t offer a truthful picture of the progress the district has made.

By agreement, each board member spoke only once before the vote was taken.

In other news:

- The board voted to delay taking action to terminate the employment of consultant Mary Guinn for two weeks. Guinn, a “leadership coach” overseeing the district’s central office reorganization, earns $290,359 (excluding travel expenses) as part of a $432,000 contract with Cross and Joftus.

Board member Sampson submitted a resolution to terminate the Cross and Joftus contract at the end of December, according to the contract’s terms. But after a closed session, he said the district’s process for hiring the consulting company may have been so flawed that Buffalo does not have a legally binding contract with Cross and Joftus. Legal counsel needs more time to research the matter, he said.

If the contract with Cross and Joftus is binding, Sampson said he will reintroduce his resolution to terminate the contract.

- The board voted on a transparency resolution by Sampson to move board meetings out of City Hall and into public schools. The board voted 8-1 on an amended resolution to move the first regular board meeting of the month out into public schools.

The resolution also calls for meetings to be live streamed on the board’s website and for all meeting agendas and all related, non-confidential information to be posted in advance on the district’s website. The board approved up to $50,000 to purchase the equipment to make this happen.

- The board voted 6-2 (Johnson had left) not to approve the employment contract of Lorey Schultz. Board members Sampson, Paladino, Harris-Tigg, Nevergold, McCarthy and Licata voted against, saying there are other pressing needs in the district and could not justify a $115,000 salary for a second public relations person. The vote occurred at around 12:10 this morning.

For a complete breakdown of Wednesday night’s meeting, visit the School Zone blog.