BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) The 7 Eyewitness News I-Team has been working since August of 2018 to uncover details surrounding a series of racial discrimination complaints filed with New York’s Division of Human Rights against Buffalo Public Schools.
Documents show there have been 41 discrimination complaints filed against Buffalo Public Schools with the New York Division of Human Rights between January 2010 and January 2020.
Only five times has BPS had to pay a settlement to a complainant.
This is a story about one of those instances, four of those cases, and the 16 men who claim they were laid off from their jobs at the Buffalo Schools Plant Services department because they were Black.
Mario Hall is a carpenter. He was first hired by Buffalo Schools in 2005 and got a permanent job with the Plant Services Department in 2009. He was laid off a year later in 2010, and he said the manager who laid him off told him it was because of budget cuts.
Between 2009 and 2012, 16 other Black men in this department would be laid off, and the Black manager who hired them all would have his position eliminated.
“For a lot of guys, it was rock bottom,” said Hall, reflecting on the situation.
After fighting for years to get his job back, applying for every opening, Hall filed a complaint in 2017 with the Division of Human Rights claiming he was kept out of work because he’s Black.
Records of his filing say the basis for his complaint was information showing two white men were hired for a carpenter position after Hall was laid off, and — according to the Department’s records — one of those individuals was a general mechanic, not a carpenter, before he was promoted to that position in 2016 without completing a compulsory union four-year apprenticeship.
Last year, Hall claimed a partial victory when the Division of Human rights ruled “probable cause existed to believe the [Buffalo Board of Education] had engaged in unlawful discrimination”. We were able to obtain a copy of the confidential settlement, which shows Hall accepted a settlement amount that was just higher than 10% of his annual salary working for the Department.
Hall said he was making more than six-figures, with overtime, before being laid off.
“I went through a drastic change,” he said. “I had two kids in college. I had my own apartment. I was working on a house. I had my own vehicle. I went bankrupt behind losing this.”
Hall is not the only person claiming Buffalo Schools engaged in discriminatory practices.
Our I-Team spoke with nine of the 16 Black men who were laid off a decade ago, including the Black manager, Obi Ifedigbo, who was in charge of hiring for Plant Services for nearly 22 years.
“These jobs pay six-figures,” he said. “To take that away from a neighborhood that needs improvement... you’re talking $1.4 million in economic disenfranchisement.”
Ifedgibo became a manager in the Plant Services department in 1990. He ran the department for 22 years until his own position was eliminated in 2012. From 2009-2012 he watched a majority of the men he had hired lose their jobs as a white manager in the same department laid them off and cited budget cuts.
We worked for two years to make contact with that manager, Joe Giusiana, but BPS would not make him available to speak with us. After Ifedigbo’s position was eliminated, Giusiana became the sole manager of the Plant Services division and ran it until he retired in February of this year.
We went to his home in early August to try and get a response to allegations made by these men and he agreed to allow us to send questions but declined to comment after seeing our information.
Integration before Elimination
A decade ago, the Buffalo Public Schools Plant Services Department began laying people off and telling workers it was because of budget cuts.
But, Obi Ifedigbo, who ran the department for many years said money shouldn’t have impacted this many individuals.
“Every budget year, they (the School Board) say, ‘Every department — you should cut a certain amount of money. But, for the Plant Department, there’s a way to do it without impacting people like this.”
In the 1970s, there was a federal ruling by Judge John Curtin that mandated integration for public service jobs across the City of Buffalo. Ifedigbo was hired in 1990, with the intent he would help diversity this civil service department. He kept meticulous records of his hires to ensure compliance.
“A lot of these people you see laid off and not replaced were hired under my tenure,” he said.
Under his management, the Plant Services department was 40% Black, his records show.
Records we received from the Board show today the department is only 30% Black, and those same records show many of the positions that were laid off were replaced by white hires.
In 2008, Plant Services Administrators — i.e. those who had hiring ability — were 50% Black. Today, every manager in that department is white — except for a Black woman working in a building safety and health role.
Black workers out the front door, new workers in the back
The school district said these men were laid off because of the budget. But records uncovered by the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team show several of their positions were filled over the years with white workers.
“We were entitled to come back for our positions,” said carpenter Mario Hall. “Those were our positions, we were qualified and they gave them to white people. Unqualified white people, not even having the same skills we got.”
Many positions in the Plant Service Department are civil service jobs ranging from electricians to plumbers, painters, painters, mechanics, and carpenters.
New York’s Civil Service law states layoffs in this particular department are to be done based on seniority, and rehires are supposed to work the same way.
“I thought I would always have the chance to get the job back,” said John Allen, an electrician that was laid off by the department in 2010.
“I was waiting for them to call me back, but they never did," he said.
"And when they did have openings, I applied and nothing really ever became of it.”
When Allen was laid off, he received a letter showing his position as 'number one' for recall eligibility. The letter said he’d automatically be called back once his position opened.
But under the law in New York, recall eligibility expires after four years.
“Some of the individuals laid off under my watch couldn’t get back because the four-year space that the civil service requires to keep the job open, I believe, was intentionally allowed to expire,” said Obi Ifedigbo.
As the four year rehire timeline slipped away, the positions left open by the laid-off employees did not sit vacantly.
According to emails obtained by our I-Team, the department manager, Giusiana, moved to hire temporary workers to fill the job responsibilities of the men he had laid off.
These temporary workers make the same wages as the laid-off workers because the rate is set by a union. They also receive full benefits.
“That’s almost illegal,” said Ifedigbo. “Hiring an apprentice and paying them the prevailing wage is almost fraudulent. Those laborers don’t have the skill of these journeymen and these are journeymen positions.”
An email sent by Giusiana to human resources just two years after the first round of layoffs states that he was looking for electricians — like John Allen, who had been laid off. He also was seeking plumbers — like Vernon Dennard, who likewise had been laid off. Other categories of workers he sought included pipe-fitters.
In that same email exchange, the HR representative told Giusiana “if you need laborers, it shouldn’t be that difficult to get approval from civil service (as done in the past) and bring them on board.”
7 Eyewitness News Legal Analyst Florina Altshiler said hiring temporary workers over the men who had been laid off is concerning.
“The real questions is not, 'Why weren’t they hired off that list?'" she said.
"The real questions really, 'Why were temporary workers hired outside of that list?' And, 'Why were those workers not offered the opportunity to have their job, even on a temporary basis?'”
In the email exchange, the HR representative also told Giusiana the temporary jobs would need to be posted, legally, in order to fill them.
Giving away a man's job
Vernon Dennard is a plumber and was laid off in 2010.
“I heard they were looking around 2012, but I didn’t see anything official.”
Records we received from Buffalo Schools show there was no official position posted for any position in Plant Services — not until over a year later.
“A municipal entity should be posting whatever the available position is and/or if there’s a civil service exam. That should be posted. Where that’s posted, and how widely know that is, is a whole different question,” said legal analyst Florina Altshiler.
Board records show there was no official plumber position posted until July of 2014, six months before Dennard’s recall eligibility was set to expire.
But, the Department made him apply and interview for his own job and then chose someone else to fill the position.
Dennard continued to apply for his old job every time he would see an open position posted. He was even granted an interview back in 2018, but he was passed over every time.
“I don’t know what happened, but I wouldn’t have done it,” said Ifedigbo. “I know it wasn’t legal to do it.”
A white employee's bad day on District time
To illustrate the difference in treatment for White and Black employees, the men we spoke with pointed to an incident that happened involving an employee in 2017.
Our I-Team obtained a police report after Plant Services employee Bryan O’Connor was arrested in Lancaster in 2017. He was arrested and hit with five charges including reckless driving and inhaling hazardous inhalants.
The police report states he led officers on a chase where he was swerving across lanes and stopped just short of crashing head-first into an oncoming car.
This was all in a vehicle registered to Buffalo City Schools. According to the report, when officers caught up with the employee, he admitted to huffing the can of air duster police found in the car with him.
According to the police report, O'Connor said he was working and on his way to a meeting at one of the schools when he ended up “out here” (in Lancaster), then the employee said he was huffing the air duster because he “had a bad day.” That employee, who is white, was allowed to return to work at the Plant Services department while at least eight of the men our I-Team spoke with cannot get their jobs back.
Too much money to keep everyone employed
Over the course of our two-year-long investigation, our I-Team reached out more than a dozen times to the Buffalo Public Schools for comment or clarification of points, but each time a representative declined to comment.
It originally refused to go on record, citing several complaints pending a legal resolution. But after each of those cases were resolved — three dismissed and one requiring the Board to pay settlement — the District still refused to provide us with comment or interviews.
In the search for answers, we submitteed a records request to the District asking for any correspondence between district employees regarding our investigation.
In the documents we received back, we uncovered a draft statement that the District decided, ultimately, not to send us.
That statement reads:
“The Buffalo Public Schools is an Equal Opportunity Employer and does not discriminate on the basis of an individual’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, religious practice, national origin, ethnic group, sex (including sexual harassment and sexual violence), gender identity, sexual orientation, political affiliation, age, marital status, military status, veteran status, disability, weight or any other basis prohibited by New York state and/or federal non-discrimination laws. Due to budgetary constraints, coupled with a decline in the amount of tasks required to be performed by a skilled tradesmen (sic), the District was force to let XX workers go in 2010. As budget positions became available over the years since that time, jobs were posted, and interviews were scheduled. As such, the most qualified candidate prevails in every instance based on experience and acquired skillset. Hiring practices for non-instructional titles with Buffalo Public Schools are govern by Civil Service Law as laid out by City of Buffalo Civil Service Commission. Under Civil Service Law tradesmen are categorized as non-competitive employment titles (meaning tradesmen are not required to participate in a Civil Service examination process to be appointed to a position). As non-competitive employees, “Preferred eligible lists” or “recall rights” are not applicable as the rules that govern these terms apply only to competitive titles.”
We shared what we found with Obi Ifedigbo, the former manager for Plant Services whose position was eliminated.
“The men might not even understand the scope and gravity of that lie,” he said in response to the budget constraints and Civil Service Law jurisdiction.
The School Board was in the middle of a $1.5 billion effort to renovate all City Schools at the time of the layoffs. The Joint School Reconstruction Project spanned several years.
“At the time the joint school construction board was being refinanced. We had so much money left to spend that they didn’t actually know how to do it so they were getting extra work,” Ifedigbo said.
A resolution by the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority shows modifications being made to budget because the JSCB had unspent proceeds in the amount of $8,667,348.88 in 2011.
The very next year Ifedibgo would lose his job, allegedly because of the need to cut the budget in the Department, yet the budget for the year shows the School Board paid out just under $1.9 million in overtime to employees in Plant Services.
“It actually brings tears to my (eyes),” said Ifedigbo after hearing the reasons given by the Board for laying these men off. “I feel responsible for these men. The excuses that are given — these men did everything they were supposed to do and still got laid off.”
The I-Team's quest to hunt down answers from the District
After months of not getting a response, we took our questions to a school board meeting in September of 2018 to ask our questions on the record.
Dr. Kriner Cash, the current superintendent of Buffalo Public Schools cautioned members before allowing them to respond.
“I would be careful on some of this because there are complaints going through a legal process,” he said.
At the time Sharon Belton-Cottman was the board’s Ferry District representative, she currently is its president.
“We as a board aren’t functioning to eliminate positions of a certain class of people,” she said at the meeting.
Dr. Cash joined the District well after these layoffs took place, but he challenged our investigation on the record, citing information we filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain.
“If you FOILed for the information, it seems to me you would wait until that time before you share facts, that, at least from what I heard, are inaccurate,” he said. “I have the full data here on these kinds of issues and that information is inaccurate.”
When we received the data from the District, our I-Team found it was incomplete after two positions we confirmed were laid off were not included on the record sent to us.
The District failed to provide additional information when asked.
Two months after we asked questions at that board meeting, Dr. Cash agreed to meet with the laid-off men to discuss their grievances under the condition 7 Eyewitness News was not present.
2 down, 14 with nowhere left to go
It had been nearly 10 years since electrician John Allen lost his job with the Plant Services Department, but he did not give up.
“Nobody wants to say all the Black guys got laid off. Nobody wants to say all the young Black guys got laid off and the pay rate is excellent for this city,” he said.
Allen and Hall and many of the men laid off with them sent letters for years and worked to speak with school board members before eventually bringing his story to our I-Team.
“I think we’ve been through two or three superintendents,” said Hall. “Everyone just laughed at us and we kept talking and talking.”
“Nothing became of it, I can tell you that. I put the time in to talk to city officials, make them aware, and it was pretty much like, “Well, you guys probably won’t get your job back,'” said Allen.
Last year, thirteen months after our I-Team began its investigation, Allen was allowed to take the civil service exam for his old position.
He got his job back in September of 2019.
Allen is now just the second out of 16 Black workers to return to Buffalo Schools Plant Services department after the layoffs a decade ago.
Carpenter Mario Hall settled his complaint of racial discrimination — but he still doesn’t have his job back.
“You throw me kibbles and bits. You throw him a bone. What about the rest of the 16 guys that got laid off?” Hall said.