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Beyond Reproach?

D’Youville president a questionable choice to lead Superintendent James Williams’s evaluation

This past Monday, both Superintendent James Williams and the Buffalo Public School board submitted their reviews of the superintendent to Sister Denise Roche, president of D’Youville College. Based on these, Roche tabulates the various appraisals and delivers a presentation to the board concerning Williams’s performance over the past year. The overall process wraps up in early June.

Every year this process takes place, and this is the second year Roche has acted as facilitator. Last year, in the wake of some very public scandals, the evaluation did not trigger a raise or a contract extension for the superintendent—as it had in 2007, when lame duck board members voted to extend both a raise and contract extension through 2011 to Williams. That move left some bitter feelings among newly elected board members, who were sworn into their positions after the deed was done.

In order for a raise or extension to be put through, the issue must be introduced either by the school board or the superintendent. Considering the extremely close election recently concluded for three at-large school board seats, wherein the most votes went to a challenger, and the second of three incumbents squeaked by only after a tally of absentee ballots, it’s doubtful any district board members—who are up for re-election next year—will want to go out on a limb advocating for Williams. He could always bring the issue up himself, but it’s unclear—based on comments he made at a school board meeting last week, as well as last year’s aborted bid for the superintendent job in Memphis—if he even wants to remain in Buffalo.

All this prognostication aside, a larger issue remains. On Monday, the board punted on a decision to close schools as mandated by the State Education Department—putting into question some $250 million in state aid that would go toward Phase 5 of the billion-dollar Joint Schools Construction Project.

One of the schools whose fate is in the balance is the popular and successful Leonardo DaVinci High School, which happens to be housed at D’Youville College. DaVinci is considered one of the jewels in the Buffalo Public Schools. Students, parents, and alumni of the school have mounted a strong campaign insisting that it should remain at D’Youville, and not be moved into nearby Grover Cleveland High School. But keeping things the way they are is not free.

According to school district documents, the current annual cost of locating DaVinci at D’Youville is $1.1 million, or $790,000, excluding capital improvements. The lease with the college expires in August 2013, and Roche signed it.

Put another way, the superintendent’s evaluation system is set up in such a way that a school district contractor is in charge of coordinating it. That’s a sticky wicket. Especially when you consider that even the appearance of bias should be avoided in conflict of interest matters.

Nevertheless, board member Catherine Nugent Panepinto took criticism from some of her colleagues Monday night for submitting a letter to Sister Roche, requesting that she remove herself from the process. The letter reads, in part:

I greatly appreciate your willingness to coordinate the evaluation and greatly respect your commitment to education in Buffalo. However, your status as a signatory to a contract with the Board of Education raises a conflict of interest with your role as evaluation coordinator. Interests such as your interest in the contract between D’Youville College and the Board of Education are generally addressed in New York State General Municipal Law § 800, wherein conflicts of interest are defined.

As this issue goes to press, Sister Roche is scheduled to make a summary presentation to the school board at 6pm tonight (Wednesday, May 20), regarding the superintendent’s evaluation. Repeated requests over the past week for comment from her have not been returned.

buck quigley

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