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Two exempts leaving City Hall

With the changing of the guard in the district -- today is Amber Dixon's first day as interim superintendent -- I've been getting tons of questions about what changes are in store.

Some of the most common questions pertain to what's going to happen to the more than two dozen exempt (non-union) administrators in City Hall. The School Board has made it clear that they want to see fewer exempts. So who will be cut?

Well, Dixon won't tip her hand on this one. She says she wants to take a look at what each of the exempts does and then decide how to reconfigure central office.

But two exempts have issued their resignations.

Kara Murphy, a "human resources partner," worked her last day for the district on Thursday.

Brendan Kelleher And Brendan Kelleher, the district's general counsel, has submitted his resignation, effective in two months.

He will be returning to Hodgson Russ, the firm he worked for before the district hired him last year. (Hodgson Russ also employs Karl Kristoff, the outside attorney the board retained recently to handle the possible termination of former Superintendent James Williams' contract and, more recently, Debbie Buckley's suspension.)

Interesting to note: A few weeks ago, a reader wrote in on one of my live blogs, saying that Kelleher had been seen at Hodgson Russ, speculating that he was planning to return to the firm.

That prompted Kelleher to email me, requesting that I remove that comment from the blog:

I saw a comment on the blog that I was at Hodgson Russ last week. Aside from walking by the Guaranty Building when going to lunch with a friend at Pearl Street last Monday and stopping to shake hands with one former co-worker, I can unequivocally state that I was not at Hodgson Russ last week. 

I have been in the Guaranty Building on very few occasions since I left the firm last September. And during none of those visits was my working there in the future ever discussed.

Well, at any rate, I informed Kelleher that it is not News policy to go back and edit reader comments from live blogs.

But back to the issue at hand: the reduction in exempt employees.

Dixon says she will not post Murphy's job.

"We'll reconfigure human resources," she said.

You might remember that former executive director of human resources Valerie DeBerry resigned this spring. Williams posted an opening for an associate superintendent for human resources, but never hired anyone to fill it. Eileen Fleming has been acting executive director of that department, which has been operating short-handed for quite some time.

And as for Kelleher's job, Dixon says she hasn't decided yet whether to post that position: "There were times we've had general counsel, and times we haven't."

- Mary Pasciak

Another grants employee suspended? District won't say

Several City Hall sources tell me that Debbie Buckley is not the only employee in the district's grants department who was suspended recently.

They say a grants coordinator was suspended, too -- not long after Buckley was escorted out of City Hall.

Eileen Fleming, who is the acting executive director for human resources, ignored my inquiries for a few days. And then on Wednesday, I finally got a response: "The District does not comment on personnel matters."

Well, that's interesting.

First off, School Board President Lou Petrucci himself provided me two weeks ago with information about Buckley's suspension. I had heard from City Hall sources that Buckley had been walked out of City Hall. When I asked Petrucci about it at an afternoon board meeting the next day, he handed me a prepared statement indicating she had been suspended.


So why is it the district comments on one employee's status, but not another's?

But really, the more important point to be made here is that the state's Committee on Open Government says the district cannot legally refuse to disclose information about the status of an employee. In an advisory opinion regarding whether information pertaining to the suspensions of public employees is public, COOG executive director Bob Freeman wrote:

With respect to records reflective of suspension of a public employee who is not a police or correction officer, such records must in our view be disclosed, in this instance.

Although a suspension in some situations might not reflect an agency's final determination of a matter, it would represent factual information that must be made available under §87(2)(g)(i).

- Mary Pasciak

Live blog of School Board meeting at 5:30 p.m.

Join us for a live blog of the School Board meeting at 5:30 p.m.

The board is expected to discuss, among other things, the situation regarding Assistant Superintendent Debbie Buckley, who was suspended on Sept. 1. (Read our story today, which tells you which prominent local defense attorney is now representing her.)

- Mary Pasciak

Time for an outside investigation into Buffalo school grants?

School Board member Ralph Hernandez says enough is enough -- the board has spent enough time talking about Debbie Buckley's suspension and not taken enough action.

In an email to his fellow board members this week -- after Wednesday's meeting, when they spent an hour and a half talking about the issue -- Hernandez said it's time to trigger an outside investigation.

"The allegations are serious; we should proceed with the independent investigation and the forensic financial audits of professional service contracts/grants," Hernandez wrote.

School board By way of background: the board learned of Buckley's suspension last Friday, the day after she was suspended as assistant superintendent who oversees about $100 million in grants to the district. The board met for an hour and a half that day in executive session to talk about the issue, but got no specifics on why she had been suspended.

Then, district administrators canceled board committee meetings this week and scheduled an executive session during that time slot for the board to instead get an update on Buckley's situation.

The board spent another hour and a half behind closed doors. Board members got some details this time, but when it came time to vote on bringing in an outside entity -- say, the state comptroller, for instance -- or referring the issue to the board's ethics commission, attorney Karl Kristoff said the board couldn't do that this week.

Well, other than voting to make her paid suspension a paid administrative leave -- a distinction that seems to make virtually no functional difference.

Why couldn't the board vote this week to request an outside investigation?

Because Wednesday's meeting was a "special" -- meaning not regularly scheduled -- meeting, Kristoff said. He said any action on Buckley's situation would have to wait until next week, at the next regularly scheduled board meeting on Wednesday.

Hernandez disputes that.

He cites a passage in the New York State Education Law book:

Although special meetings are ordinarily held to consider a single item of the business, other items of business may be included on the agenda for that meeting by consent of the board members present. There is no requirement that the notice of a special board meeting contain any notice of a proposed agenda (Matter of Neversink, 10 educ. Dep’t Rep.203 (1971).  Care should be taken, however, to see that the special board meeting does not usurp the place of regularly scheduled board meetings for consideration of regular school district business.”

Hernandez wrote to his colleagues on the board:

"The law is clear, we could have voted to invoke an outside independent counsel to conduct the Buckley investigation at yesterday’s special board meeting. In addition, we could have also voted to obtain the services of an independent audit firm or the NYS Comptroller’s Office to conduct a forensic audit of all professional service contracts and grant portfolios dating back to 2007 as Ruth (Kapsiak) suggested.

"Concerning '…not usurp…' the Buckley investigation and professional service contracts proposed audit are not 'regular school district business' so, the advice that 'care should be taken' is not required. 

Next week, the board will revisit Buckley situation -- for a third time.

Some board observers say the number of hours spent discussing Buckley vs. the amount of action taken seems to be typical of the board lately.

Alan Wynia of Buffalo ReformED, who attends nearly all the board meetings, noted Wednesday that during the last two weeks of August, the board met five times, on five different days. By his calculation, that worked out to about 20 hours spent in meetings, with more than half of that time spent in executive session.

- Mary Pasciak

City Honors layoffs

The School Board raised some eyebrows when -- after passing a budget in May that included scores of job cuts -- it decided in August to look for ways to reinstate some of the positions it had decided to cut.

In fact, even the newest board member, Sharon Belton-Cottman, was confused.

"I'm trying to figure out what happened between the teachers being laid off and here," she said at the board's Aug. 17 meeting. "I'm confused as to why this is an issue now, when we knew going in that teachers would be laid off."

(She was not on the board when it approved the budget that included the cuts.)

"When we agreed to lay off some of these positions, some of these programs were not part of the (plan): IB, pre-k, AP, Montessori," board President Lou Petrucci said. "Since a lot of these teachers have specialized training, that would be the difference."

Behind the scenes, parents from certain schools were lobbying the board to get teachers reinstated.

Some of the most active parents were those from City Honors, a school where six teachers -- including some with specialized training -- got laid off. That works out to about one in 10 teachers there.

The City Honors parents circulated an online petition. They emailed board members. They called board members. They attended board meetings.

It's not the first time City Honors mobilized to save its staff.

Two City Honors teachers got laid off last year. Parents lobbied the board then, too.

Last year, both teachers were reinstated.

This year, parents at other schools feared City Honors would get special treatment, especially since two board members (John Licata and Lou Petrucci) have children at the school. Superintendent James Williams assured board member Rosalyn Taylor that the City Honors teachers would be reinstated.

That didn't happen.

The board reinstated a few dozen teachers in the district. At City Honors, one out of the six is back -- working with autistic students there, rather than working as a math teacher, as she had been.

So as school gets underway, City Honors and other schools will be working to get new teachers up to speed.

And some people are starting to think about next year, seeing as layoffs seem to be perennial in the district.

It's state law, not the local teachers contract, that determines how layoffs are done -- what's known as LIFO, or last in, first out. The Big Five districts in the state -- including Buffalo -- have come out in support of reforming LIFO, but at this point, there doesn't seem to be much movement in Albany toward that.

Petrucci says he would at least like the board to implement ways to avoid the last-minute scramble that this summer left teachers confused as to whether or not they still had a job, and left students and parents anxious about whether their favorite teachers would be back.

"Ideally, I would like to get the budget done in February or March," he said.

How realistic is that?

Petrucci points out that the district gets most of its funding from the state. That means the district doesn't know exactly how much revenue it has until the state budget is adopted, which is unlikely to happen before April.

"At least we can get (a tentative budget) in place in February or March, predicated on what the funding would be," Petrucci said.

- Mary Pasciak

Live blog of special board meeting at 4:30 p.m.

Join us for a live blog at 4:30 p.m., when the School Board holds a special meeting to continue its discussion of last week's suspension of Debbie Buckley, who oversees federal grants in the district.

- Mary Pasciak

Live blog of noon board meeting

The School Board will hold its third -- yes, third -- meeting of the week today.

Join us for a live blog at noon, when the board is scheduled to discuss Buffalo's Promise Neighborhood grant application.

- Mary Pasciak

How many teachers have been restored at your school?

School Board members got a memo around 4 p.m. Thursday from Superintendent James Williams and CFO Barb Smith, providing details regarding which schools teaching positions had been restored to.

The $1.2 million contingency fund the board approved Monday for recalls resulted in 12 teaching positions in the areas of ELA, reading, math and social studies, and 14 teacher aides, according to the memo.

"To date, a total of 47 teachers and 50 teacher aide layoffs have been rescinded. Additionally, seven attendance teachers are in the process of being recalled," the memo stated.

"Teacher layoffs currently total 70, however, 19 teachers on special assignment positionsneed to be filled; therefore layoffs are projected to be approximately 51 after the filling of said vacancies. Teacher aide layoffs currently total 100; however an additional 20 special education aide vacancies exist and will be filled as individual student needs are identified, bringing the projected aide layoffs down to 80 (from 150)."

Here's a list of the number of full-time equivalent positions, by subject area, restored to each school, according to the memo. (A 1 means a full-time teacher. A .2 would be the equivalent of one day a week, for instance.):

Buffalo Elementary School of Technology, .6:
- Home and careers: .2
- Math: .2
- Technology: .2

Hillery Park, .32:
- Art: .16
- Music: .16

Frank Sedita, 2.4:
- Grade 1: 1
- Kindergarten: 1
- Math: .2
- Science: .2

Bennett Park Montessori, .4:
- Math: .2
- Phys ed: .2

Bilingual Center School 33, .5:
- Support math: .5

MLK, .5:
- Library: .5

Community School 53, .6:
- Home and careers: .2
- Spanish: .2
- Technology: .2

Olmsted 56, .4:
- Math: .2
- Spanish: .2

Drew Science Magnet 59, .1:
- Coordinator: .1

North Park Middle Academy, .6:
- English: .2
- Social studies: .2
- Spanish: .2

Lorraine Elementary, .6:
- Math: .2
- Science: .4

Herman Badillo, .2:
- Science: .2

Grabiarz, 1:
- Grade 6: 1

Highgate Heights, .4:
- English: .2
- Science: .2

School 81, .2:
- English: .2

Lydia T. Wright, .2:
- Spanish: .2

Waterfront, .2:
- Science: .2

The Academy, 1.6:
- Art: .4
- English: 1
- Science: .2

School 187, .2:
- Math: .2

City Honors, 1.2:
- Art: .4
- Music: .4
- Phys ed: .4

Math Science Tech Prep, 3.6:
- English: .8
- Home and careers: .2
- Math: .6
- Phys ed: .4
- Science: 1
- Social studies: .4
- Technology: .2

International Prep, 4:
- English: .5
- English: .8
- Grade 5: 1
- Grade 6: 1
- Math: .7

Bennett High School, 2:
- Social studies: 2

Lafayette High School, 1:
- Science: 1

Riverside, .1:
- Health asst.: .1

South Park High School, 1.6:
- Social studies: 1.6

Leonardo da Vinci High School, 1:
- English: 1

Burgard High School, .2:
- Business: .2

Emerson, 1.4:
- English: .4
- Math: .2
- Social studies: .8

McKinley High School, 3.8:
- Art: .4
- English: .5
- Math: .9
- Phys ed: .4
- Science: 1.2
- Social studies: .4

East High School, 1.8:
- English: 1.2
- Social studies: .6

School 335, 1:
- English: .5
- Math: .5

School 650, 2:
- IT coaches: 2

Technology: .1

Department, 5.2:
- ESL: 5.2

- Mary Pasciak

Which Buffalo teachers have been recalled

After meeting on other issues for three hours last night, the Buffalo School Board "ran out of time" to discuss the recall of laid-off teachers.

Board President Lou Petrucci told me after the meeting that district administrators would email details to the board this morning regarding which teachers and teacher aides have been recalled, using the $1.2 million contingency funds the board released on Monday.

Well, as of 2 p.m. today (Thursday), as far as I know, the board has not yet received that information.

The Buffalo Teachers Federation, though, has.

According to the information provided to me by the BTF, 17 more teachers were recalled this week, using that $1.2 million.

Here's how that breaks down, by tenure area:

- Seven English teachers

- Four reading teachers

- Three math teachers

- One science teacher

- Two social studies teachers.

Add those 17 to the 47 recall notices sent earlier, and you get a total of 64 teachers whose layoffs have been rescinded, according to the info provided to me by the BTF.

Of that total 64, those who have been recalled include:

- 24 elementary teachers

- Nine English teachers

- Eight reading teachers

- Eight math teachers

- One science teacher

- 14 social studies teachers.

I am expecting to get this info broken down by school later this afternoon. Once I get it, I will post it.

Update (2:37 p.m.):

Just got the breakdown by school.

This gets tricky, though. Keep in mind that this indicates how many teachers who had been laid off from a particular school have had their layoff rescinded. That does not necessarily mean those teachers are returning to the school they were laid off from.

So, for instance, five layoffs from International School 45 were rescinded. That does not necessarily mean those five teachers will be returning to International School 45.

With that caveat, here is the breakdown, for all 64 teachers whose layoffs have been rescinded, they came from:

Buffalo Elementary School of Technology, School 6: 2 layoffs rescinded

Dr. Pantoja School 18: 3

Native American Magnet School 19: 1

Hillery Park School 27: 1

Frank Sedita School 30: 2

Harriett Ross Tubman School 31: 3

Futures Academy School 37: 2

School 39: 3

International School 45: 5

School 53: 1

Olmsted School 56: 1

Early Childhood Center School 61: 1

Discovery School 67: 1

Hamlin Park School 74: 1

Herman Badillo School 76: 1

Grabiarz School 79: 3

School 81: 2

Early Childhood Center School 82: 1

Lydia T. Wright School 89: 2

BUILD Academy School 91: 1

West Hertel Academy School 94: 3

Waterfront School 95: 2

Harvey Austin School 97: 2

The Academy School 131: 1

School 187: 2

City Honors School 195: 1

Math Science Tech Prep at Seneca School 197: 2

International Prep School 198: 2

School 202:1

Leonardo da Vinci High School 212: 1

Burgard High School 301: 2

McKinley High School 305: 2

East High School 307: 4

School 521: 1

- Mary Pasciak

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About School Zone

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee joined The Buffalo News in 2007 and currently covers education and suburban schools. She also writes a column for the City & Region section and previously covered government in Erie County and Niagara Falls. Gee graduated from Boston University with degrees in journalism and political science.

@denisejewellgee |

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes joined The Buffalo News in 2013 and primarily covers the Buffalo Public Schools. She has written about education since 2003 at newspapers in Florida and New York. In 2008, she was a nominated finalist for The Pulitzer Prize. Lankes is an Amherst native and graduate of Sacred Heart Academy and Syracuse University. She started her journalism career writing for the News’ NeXt section.

@TiffanyLankes |

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan has been a cityside reporter for The Buffalo News since 2000 and currently covers the Buffalo Public Schools beat. She previously covered the Williamsville school district and was a full-time education reporter for five years prior to joining The News. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

@BNschoolzone |

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams began working for The Buffalo News in 1999 and currently covers Buffalo Public Schools. She formerly was a suburban reporter on the Northtowns beat and has been a cityside reporter covering communities since 2004. Williams has a mass communications degree from Towson University.

@DeidreWilliamsB |