Buffalo’s absent schools superintendent
Updated: 4:52 p.m.
Where does the superintendent of Buffalo schools live?
Kriner Cash’s employment contract requires him to live in the city. But he’s told the state of Massachusetts that his primary domicile is his million-dollar home on Martha’s Vineyard. That’s where he votes, holds his driver’s license and registers his cars.
Investigative Post looked into his residence in the face of persistent rumors Cash spends a good deal of time away from Buffalo in Martha’s Vineyard, including long stretches during the pandemic.
Cash, through the district’s spokesperson, refused interview requests from Investigative Post. His only comment, when asked about his primary residence at a press conference, was: “I live everywhere. I don’t have a primary residence. I’m ubiquitous.”
His press aide immediately ended the press conference after his brief answer.
Two administrators and Larry Quinn, a member of the School Board when it hired Cash in 2015, said Cash is frequently absent from the district.
“Where was he during COVID? The biggest crisis since school busing. He wasn’t here,” said Quinn, who left the board in 2019.
Quinn said he’s remained in contact with a number of school administrators and board members, some of whom have complained to him about Cash’s frequent absences.
“They say he’s not around, and when he is, he’s not engaged.”
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Administrators told Investigative Post the same thing.
“Through the pandemic he was working out in the Vineyard a good chunk of it. It was obvious from some of the [Zoom] background pictures,” one administrator said. “He certainly spends an awful lot of time there.”
Cash has taken an average of 36.3 days off during his six years on the job, primarily vacation and sick time, in addition to 15 school holidays. That amounts to more than 10 weeks off a year, or over two and a half months, plus whatever undocumented time he has taken away from the district.
Cash’s frequent, and sometimes lengthy, absences have come during an especially tumultuous time for the district. The pandemic forced the district to shift to remote learning from March of last year through spring of this year, a period in which only one-third of students had satisfactory attendance rates. In March, the district was crippled by a ransomware attack. These problems were in addition to issues attendant to the challenges of managing an urban school district in which fewer than one-third of students are proficient in basic math and language skills.
Cash’s management style has compounded the impact of his absences, administrators told Investigative Post. Senior members of his administrative team are not empowered to make decisions without the superintendent’s involvement.
“There is no decision made at this district unless they go through him,” one administrator said. “It’s a billion-dollar industry that basically has a one-man show that no one can make decisions because they’re petrified. It’s pretty bizarre.”
Residency mandated in contract
Cash, 66, landed a leadership role right after he earned his doctorate of education from University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1991.
He worked as an associate dean and associate professor of Howard University’s School of Education and chairman of the education department at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts before being hired as superintendent of the Martha’s Vineyard school district in 1995.
He led Martha’s Vineyard schools for nine years before being hired as chief of accountability and systemwide performance at Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida. He held that position for four years and then worked as superintendent of Memphis schools for five years. He was recruited for the superintendent’s job in Buffalo by then state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.
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Now on his third contract with the district, Cash has earned around $1.5 million in salary during his tenure. His employment contract comes with conditions, one being a domicile requirement.
“Within six months of the effective date of this contract, the Superintendent shall establish a domicile within the boundaries of the District and he shall maintain this domicile during all times this Agreement or any amendment to this Agreement is in force,” the contract states.
He was given up to $6,000 in reimbursement funds to establish a domicile — that is, a permanent residence.
Six years later, Cash has not purchased property in Buffalo, according to public records. He initially rented at the Hotel Lafayette in downtown and has moved on to other rentals since.
He’s earned a 2.5 percent raise each year since his hire. In the 2020-2021 school year, Cash was paid $303,549. He’s set to make $311,137 in the upcoming school year.
Maintains ties to Massachusetts
Public records show Cash purchased his home in Martha’s Vineyard for $481,500 in 2002 while working as superintendent there. The house is assessed at $732,700, and the real-estate website Zillow estimates the value of the home at $1,080,100. He has registered a 2015 Jeep Renegade and a leased 2020 Cadillac XT5 in Massachusetts.
Under his contract, Cash is entitled to 26 vacation days a year; he can’t use them when school is in session without the approval of the Board of Education. Nor is he permitted to take more than 10 consecutive days off without board approval. He also has 12 sick days a year, two personal days and up to 10 days of family illness leave.
That’s up to 50 days Cash could take off a year, plus the 15 holidays the district office is closed annually.
Records obtained under the state Freedom of Information Law show that since Cash started at the district he’s used 106 vacation days, 63 sick days, 8.5 personal days and 40.5 “other” days which are not otherwise defined. That amounts to 218 days off, or 36.3 days off per school year, plus the 15 days of annual school holidays.
These records do not show times he is out of the district while not drawing on the aforementioned days off.
Cash, when he started with the district, would travel back and forth between Buffalo and Martha’s Vineyard “all summer long,” one administrator told Investigative Post. That hasn’t changed, he added.
Investigative Post asked School Board President Louis Petrucci about Cash spending long stretches during the pandemic working remotely from Martha’s Vineyard. His response: “I don’t want to comment on, again, my only employee and what they’re doing and where they’re at, and those things.”
Sharon Belton-Cottman, board president from 2019 to 2021, ignored an interview request from Investigative Post for this story. But she justified the superintendent’s absences from the district in an interview a year ago with WGRZ.
“There were staff meetings daily. Typically his day starts at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 7:30 at night, So even though he was not in the district, he was still working.”
She added: “Anyone that is working presently for the Buffalo Public Schools needs to be inside our city — all hands on deck and moving forward. Does that mean that the work cannot get done if someone is not here? No, that’s not what that means.
“But I just think that for the optics and for our people to be comfortable, we do need to have the superintendent back in Western New York, which he is, off of his vacation.”
Quinn had a different take: The superintendent needs to be in Buffalo, especially this summer. For starters, he said the district needs to work out the details of a general plan it announced in July to spend $289 million in federal pandemic aid.
“Implementing something so massive is a major undertaking. I can’t imagine how you could do it remotely,” Quinn said.
There’s also the matter of returning schools to classroom instruction.
“The biggest problem is the most important time for a superintendent is July and August, as you’re opening 51 schools in September,” Quinn said. “And as far as I know, he spends very little time here in July and August.”
Complaints from administrators
Cash’s absence contributed to the district’s muddled response to the pandemic, administrators said, because he doesn’t allow his cabinet to make decisions without him.
At the start of the pandemic, a decision on a Friday to close schools to students the following Monday gave administrators minimal time to plan a safe way to prepare families for distance learning.
“The arrival of families to the buildings was really dangerous,” one administrator said. “How the virus was just running through the community at that point in time, and people really didn’t know how to protect themselves. But what we knew is: Don’t get large crowds together.”
Similar problems occurred when planning the reopening of schools, when multiple delays sparked dissatisfaction among parents, administrators and the community.
Cash received high marks this past year from the school board, which gave him a score of 3.64 out of a possible 4. Members lauded his management of the district during COVID-19 and his relationship with board members and the community.
Not everyone agrees.
“It appears as if the board is missing in action in the sense of holding this superintendent accountable,” said Bishop Michael Badger, senior pastor of Bethesda World Harvest International Church.
“He has a contract. If he is not fulfilling that contract, he should be held accountable. And it doesn’t appear, from my point of view, that that’s happening now.”
In response to this story, the Board of Education issued a press release Thursday afternoon declaring its support of Cash.
“At no time over the course of his six years with the district and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has our superintendent diminished any fulfillment of his responsibilities to the board or district,” the release stated in part.