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Board skirts Open Meetings Law

I'm here at the board office, where four board members and the superintendent are on the phone with State Ed, getting some answers to questions they have about the distinguished educator the state has appointed to the Buffalo Public Schools.

One of those board members, Ralph Hernandez, mentioned the call to me yesterday. I asked if I could sit in on the call, seeing as I'm working on a story about the distinguished educator. Sure, he said. It wouldn't be a board meeting -- only four board members would be here -- he said, but yes, I could sit in on the call.

Door to boardroomWell, shortly after I arrived in the waiting room outside the board room today, Board President Mary Ruth Kapsiak arrived. I mentioned to her that Hernandez said I could sit in on the call.

"No you can't," she told me. "It's not a board meeting. I was told the full board couldn't even be here."

Hernandez went down to the legal department, came back up and told me there wouldn't be a problem, and that he would open the door to the board room for me.

"It's not an executive session. We can't not let you in," he said.

Well, in the meantime, board members Rosalyn Taylor and Florence Johnson arrived, along with the superintendent. Assistant legal counsel Nate Kuzma popped back into the board room for a few minutes, too.

And the door has remained closed and locked for the hour or so that I've been here.

It's no coincidence that only four out of the nine board members are behind that door. They are apparently acquainted with the state's Open Meetings Law at least well enough to know how to skirt it. Whenever a majority of the board (in this case, five or more board members) get together to talk about board business, that's considered a board meeting, and it has to be open to the public.

I have no doubt that Kapsiak was right -- someone told her that the full board could not assemble here today. If they did, they would have to let me in.

It's by design that no more than four board members are in that room.

This is an old trick that this board and plenty of others use. It enables them to keep even more of the public's business out of the public's eye.

The question is: Why?

The subject of today's little meeting is the distinguished educator -- the woman the state has appointed and whom the board now has to reach a contract with.

The distinguished educator is not only a bone of contention among board members -- it's quite a topic of interest among the public, judging from the comments, emails and Facebook messages I've received about it. People want to know exactly how this person is supposed to help turn the schools around. They have plenty of questions, and rightfully so.

Today was the perfect opportunity to get those answers. (State Ed thus far has not even responded to my request for a copy of Judy Elliott's resume. So if you think it's easy to get answers to basic questions, you might want to think again.)

I have no idea why the board isn't interested in sharing the state's factual responses with the public. I would think the board would want an informed and engaged public.

What is it, exactly, that the board was so determined to keep secret today?

Well, here's a list of the questions the board sent to State Ed:

BPS Questions Re Distinguished Educator


- Mary Pasciak

The investigation that the district does not want you to know about

Today, we bring you a tale of two reports: one that the district has released and one that the district refuses to release.

When the Buffalo Public Schools hired an accounting firm to assess the risks in its grants department, the findings were rather clear.

In the department that handles about $100 million a year, there's a high likelihood of risk, along with the highest of possible impacts.

In a snapshot, here's what they found:

BPS grants risk

Translation: It can't get much worse.

Here are a few snippets from the report:

- "Several grants either do not have a designated grants administrator, or have the same person designated as grant administrator and grant manager."

In other words, there were no checks and balances.

- A review of purchase orders related to contracted services, "in general, we noted that there was no evidence that the grant administrator or manager had verified that the services listed on the invoice were actually completed before signing the purchase order certification."

Translation: Officials were approving payment for services without even bothering to check whether those services had been rendered.

- "In one instance, the grant administrator stated that he had signed the certification but never verified with the associate involved in the day-to-day management of the contracted services that the agreed-upon deliverables had been completed by the vendor. In speaking with the vendor, we noted that, in fact, the agreed-upon deliverables had not been completed, but the vendor was paid for the work anyway."

Yes. That means in one case, the vendor actually admitted having been paid for work that had not been done.

Here's the full report:

BPS Grants Risk Assessment

All of which brings us to the next report -- the report that led to the firing of Debbie Buckley, the assistant superintendent who oversaw the grants department -- the woman who oversaw $100 million of taxpayer money, in other words.

There's all kinds of rumor and speculation flying around City Hall -- and the supermarket -- about what Buckley did or didn't do, who else might or might not have been involved, and exactly why she was fired.

The truth -- or at least some piece of it, presumably -- lies in a report created by an investigator that the School Board hired in October 2011.

I submitted a Freedom of Information Law request for a copy of that report. Here's the denial letter:

Bps Foil Denial

The crux of their argument, as you can see, is that because the district hired a law firm to conduct the investigation, the report is covered by attorney-client privilege.

Bob Freeman, the state's leading authority on government, says that's ridiculous. The only portions of the report that would be covered by attorney-client privilege are those that contain legal advice.

I appealed the district's denial of my request, and here's what Superintendent Pamela Brown sent me:

BPS FOIL Appeal Denial

If it looks familiar, that's because it's almost exactly the same letter as the initial denial. I'm not sure how much additional legal research they did in between sending the first one and the second one.

It's incredible how tight-lipped the district is about the whole thing.

On Friday morning, I emailed and texted spokeswoman Elena Cala, letting her know I was writing a story about the denial of my FOIL request (at that point, I had not yet received a response to my appeal). I asked if the superintendent wanted to comment for the story. I also asked how many pages were in the report (one board member said it was hundreds of pages long) and how much the board spent on the report (it had authorized up to $10,000 for it).

Cala acknowledged that she had received my questions.

She just never answered them.

Instead, I got an email from the superintendent's secretary, containing the denial of my appeal.

I guess maybe I'll have to file a FOIL request to find out exactly how much taxpayer money the district spent on a report that it refuses to release.

- Mary Pasciak    

James Williams vying for top job in Florida district: Read his full application

What's James Williams up to these days?

That's one of the most common questions I've been getting lately.

I hadn't really heard much about his latest endeavors until yesterday, when I got an email from a reader letting me know that he had surfaced as a candidate for the superintendent's job in Duval County, Fla. Today's story covers the highlights.

Williams last dayA couple of other tidbits I uncovered in my research for today's story: Williams apparently still owns his Main Street Condo in Buffalo. He had said he planned to sell it soon after he resigned, but city records still list him as the owner.

And a check of Maryland public records found that he established a business entity, JA Williams and Associates LLC, back in January, listing his home address in Silver Springs. I couldn't find a website or any other information about it online, though.

Now, back to the issue at hand.

Superintendent searches work differently in Florida -- districts not only have to disclose the names of all applicants (not just the final two or three), but they also have to post their entire application. Now, that takes transparency to a new level.

The Florida Times-Union has posted all the candidates' bios and their applications (well, at least those the district has posted so far). Scroll down, and you'll find Williams.

And here is his application, courtesy of the Times-Union.

It's an interesting read.

James Williams' application

- Mary Pasciak

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

Join me for the live blog of tonight's special School Board meeting.

The board is expected to approve a contract for distinguished educator Judy Elliott (something they have to do by Aug. 1, but did not do at the last board meeting) and approve "reasonable relocation and housing expenses" for Pamela Brown from July 12 to Aug. 31.

The packet for tonight's meeting is rather brief, but here it is.

- Mary Pasciak

Searchable database: How did your school do in math and ELA?

Find out how your school did in grades 3-8 math and English language arts in 2012.

To select multiple counties, districts or schools, hold down the Control key on a PC (or Command key on a Mac) while you make your selections.

This database includes results from every public district and charter school in Western New York (Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie, Genesee, Niagara, Orleans and Wyoming counties).

To do another search, click here.

Online Database by Caspio
Click here to load this Caspio Online Database.


- Mary Pasciak

Live blog of governor's education reform commission meeting

Join me at 1 p.m., when the governor's education reform commission holds a meeting in Buffalo at the Makowski Early Childhood Center to get public input.

The commission is looking for "solution-oriented input" on three main areas: the structure of the state's public education system; teacher and principal quality and district leadership; and student achievement and family engagement.

- Mary Pasciak

The ceremony, the bonus and the contract that didn't get signed

Brown swearing inPam Brown was sworn in this afternoon as Buffalo's superintendent, with a small crowd on hand for the event in City Hall.

(That's Barbara Seals Nevergold, at-large board member, on the left; Justice Rose Sconiers; Pam Brown; Mary Ruth Kapsiak, board president; and Mayor Byron Brown.)

Travel snags prevented Brown's husband from attending -- he was traveling from California, via Toronto, and customs delays combined with luggage headaches delayed him long enough to miss the ceremony.

But a small crowd made up mostly of teachers, principals and administrators were on hand for the swearing in.

The board last night approved Brown's contract, minutes after a second judge found no reason to block it.

I don't yet have a copy of the contract, but I was allowed to read a copy of it last night. 

Brown is making $217,500 a year -- plus up to $15,000 in bonus pay each year, depending on how the board rates her. She'll get an extra $15,000 if the board gives her a 4.5 or higher on a scale of 1 to 5; $10,000 if she gets a 4.0 to a 4.4; and $7,500 if she gets a 3.5 to a 3.9.

While everyone has been paying close attention to Brown's appointment and contract approval, there was a second contract the board was supposed to approve last night: the contract with Judy Elliott, the distinguished educator the state appointed in June.

Judy ElliottElliott's situation is a curious one.

The state appointed her, but it's the district that has to work out a contract with her and pay her.

"It's an interesting and pretty unique arrangement," State Ed spokesman Dennis Tompkins said.

Elliott is supposed to start work in the district on Aug. 1, and last night was the only board meeting before then. But when it came time to talk about her contract, board members said they felt they did not have enough information to make a decision. In fact, there was no written contract for them to look at.

The sticking point, attorneys for both sides said, is her salary.

Board members were clearly not thrilled with having to negotiate a contract with someone the state had imposed on them.

"It's my understanding there is no negotiation at this point -- it is a requirement SED has made of us," said Nevergold.

Brown pointed out to the board that because Elliott is supposed to begin working in the district on Aug. 1, the board will have to call a special meeting before then to approve her contract.

"I feel that we need to discuss this more thoroughly with our commissioner -- we're the guinea pig," said Florence Johnson, an at-large board member. "We're the first [district in the state] to have a distinguished educator."

During one of the board's three executive sessions last night, I had a chance to chat with Elliott's attorney, Christ Gaetanos. He confirmed that Elliott -- who lived in Western New York from the time she was 4 until she was 34 -- now lives in Florida. Buffalo will be one of a number of consulting jobs she handles, he said. She will most likely be spending about one week a month here, Gaetanos said.

- Mary Pasciak

Live blog of School Board meeting at 5:30 p.m.: Brown's contract

Join me for a live blog of tonight's meeting. The board is expected to approve a contract for Pamela Brown, the new superintendent, and a contract for Judy Elliott, the "distinguished educator" that the state has appointed.

- Mary Pasciak

How Buffalo's new teacher evals will be different

We know Buffalo submitted its 2012-13 teacher eval plan to the state late Monday.

What we don't know is exactly what's in it. And it seems to be anyone's guess at this point when we're going to find out.

Nobody seems inclined to release a copy of the eval plan that Buffalo submitted until the state reviews it and decides whether to approve it -- and it's not clear how soon state officials plan to do that.

Houghton AcademyIn the meantime, though, Phil Rumore offered me some highlights regarding how this eval plan will differ from what Buffalo submitted for 2011-12:

- Teachers will be observed in the classroom twice a year, instead of once.

One of those observations will be unannounced.

That's all in keeping with the state law that went into effect this year. (Rumore a few weeks ago told me he didn't think the 2012-13 eval plan would have to comply with the new law, but apparently he since changed his mind.)

- Student absenteeism will be counted differently.

Under the 2011-12 plan, student absenteeism was evaluated on a schoolwide basis. Not so under the new plan.

This time around, student absenteeism will be "more based on student absenteeism in an individual teacher's class," Rumore said.

- Similarly, under the last eval plan, student growth was based on schoolwide test scores. Not so in the 2012-13 plan.

"Last year, we had to use the whole school's score. We didn't have a pre-test and post-test," Rumore said. "This year, our fundamental change is going to be that we'll have an analysis based on an individual teacher's class. There will be a pre-test at the beginning of the year, then a post-test."

- Teachers in certain grades or subject areas will be exempt from the pre-tests and post-tests. Rumore said that group will include pre-kindergarten teachers, psychologists and social workers. Evaluations for those people will be based on the traditional observations, he said.

While Buffalo met the state's deadline for submitting the new evaluation plan, it seems there are a number of details that the union and the district have not yet ironed out.

For example, the two sides need to decide how much each of the classroom observations will be counted. The new law says there must be two observations, one of them unannounced, but it does not say whether each observation must be counted equally.

"Some districts are adding both and dividing by two -- averaging them. Some districts are counting the announced one as 60 percent (of the observation component of the evaluation), and the unannounced one 40 percent," Rumore said. "We really haven't come to closure on that yet. It's something we have to discuss with the district."

Also still needing to be worked out: rules regarding the unannounced observations.

"We have to negotiate how that's going to work," Rumore said. "We don't want it to be before a holiday or after a holiday."

As soon as a copy of the eval plan is released, we'll have complete details on exactly what it will mean for Buffalo teachers. (Remember, the 2012-13 plan will apply to every teacher in the district.)

Stay tuned.

- Mary Pasciak

Behind the scenes in City Hall

These are interesting days in City Hall.

Amber Dixon is still technically the person running the district -- and will be, until Pamela Brown and the School Board sign a contract. That's expected to happen on July 11.

In the meantime, the board is paying Brown $800 a day (plus travel and lodging expenses) to act as a consultant during the transition.

Dixon and petrucciDixon cleared out of the seventh-floor superintendent's office on Friday. She's now working out of her former office on the eighth floor, where she's overseeing the operations of the district.

Brown on Monday began working out of the superintendent's office in Room 712, although she's technically a per diem consultant until she signs a contract as superintendent -- something that's expected to happen on July 11.

Plenty of people are talking privately about how things are more than a bit awkward, seeing as Dixon wanted the job that Brown got.

But nobody seems to be acknowledging that publicly.

Yesterday, Dixon took the seat at the head of the board table, next to then-board President Lou Petrucci. The two of them (pictured above right) were all smiles in public, although both knew their time at the head of the table was not going to last long.

The board clearly had already determined who was going to be its next president, well before the public vote was taken -- in keeping with past practice, and likely in violation of the state's open meetings law. Two people were nominated: Petrucci and Mary Ruth Kapsiak.

Brown and kapsiakWith absolutely no discussion, the vote was taken first for Kapsiak. It passed 6-3, with Petrucci, John Licata and Jason McCarthy voting no.

It's probably safe to say the outcome of the vote was not a surprise, seeing as Kapsiak's husband was in the audience, ready for the big moment.

This will be Kapsiak's third term as president. (Here she is, to the right of the new superintendent, after the board meeting.)

Kapsiak tells me her main goal for the board this coming year is to play a supporting role for Brown.

"I'm there to help, not to make decisions for her," the new board president said.

After the board meeting, I caught Brown as she and some others were enjoying the congratulations cake in honor of Kapsiak's election.

I was trying to figure out what the latest was with Lafayette High School. The district, I had heard, had filed a teacher eval plan by the close of business on Monday -- just in the nick of time -- but I wasn't clear on whether Johns Hopkins University had agreed to specifics regarding its involvement as the group that had been identified to run the school for the coming year.

And so I asked Brown what the status of Johns Hopkins was.

She wasn't sure, she told me.

"I'm going to have to get up to speed on that," she said.

And at that point, district spokeswoman Elena Cala gave me a good-natured ribbing about giving the new superintendent a break and letting her catch her breath a little before I start launching questions at her.

There's no doubt that the learning curve facing Brown is a huge one -- like any urban district, Buffalo has a host of challenges to tackle. Some would even say that the nuances and details here in Buffalo might prove to be even more challenging than in most.

But here's the thing: there are more than 32,000 kids in the Buffalo schools. And they don't have the luxury of waiting to start second grade or seventh grade or tenth grade until someone in City Hall figures it all out.

So let's hope Brown is a quick study.

- 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 |