Change arrives today in the Buffalo School District. That change has a name: Carl Paladino, the voluble developer turned politician turned educator who takes his seat on the School Board today. It will make a difference. The only question is, what kind?
Paladino isn’t the only fresh face on the School Board. May’s elections also brought two other new board members, both of whom appear to bring significant strengths to the urgent task of turning around Buffalo schools: James M. Sampson, president and CEO of the Gateway-Longview child services agency, and Theresa A. Harris-Tigg, an assistant professor at SUNY Buffalo State.
Together, these new board members, along with the just re-elected Jason M. McCarthy, could make a difference in the lives of students. The question is whether they will – or can – work together, and with the holdover members. Whatever the prospects for that are, Paladino’s influence is likely to make it challenging.
It is an ironic moment for Paladino to take public office. He is a bare-fisted brawler when it comes to achieving his goals, but he has this much in common with his previous political adversary, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo: he is not afraid to disrupt the status quo.
Cuomo, a polished politician holding a powerful office, has recently succeeded in breaking two long-standing logjams in Western New York: the standoff over casino payments due the state and cities here, and years of inaction on the Peace Bridge.
Like Paladino, Cuomo showed himself to be as tough as nails, but he also demonstrated patience and skill. Paladino has had his successes, as well, including the removal of the Interstate 190 tollbooths, but his temperament is volatile. There is no finesse in his approach to anything. Will that work on a more formidable task than Cuomo faced and in a position that requires forming partnerships? No one likes being bullied, especially accomplished people like Sampson and Harris-Tigg.
Still, the board is ripe for disruption. Just last week, in a transparent attempt to push through the annual evaluation of Superintendent Pamela C. Brown, the board voted 8-1 to approve the evaluation, even though board members didn’t have a final copy of it.
Paladino has criticized Brown harshly and often, and has said his first official act will be an effort to remove her from a position for which he says she is ill-suited. He is not alone among civic leaders in doubting her abilities, although student performance reports for her first year on the job are not yet available. Regardless, if the outgoing School Board was not trying to protect her from something, it went out of its way to make it seem that way.
More broadly and significantly, the board has failed in the task of improving the education of Buffalo students. Graduation rates from last year plunged 7 percentage points in Buffalo, the biggest decline of any of the state’s Big 5 school districts and the second-worst showing overall.
The community has a lot riding on the new board, and especially on Sampson, Harris-Tigg and Paladino. They have taken on a task that is massive in both complexity and significance. The test of their success will not be in their passion – though that matters – but in their ability to see that Buffalo students have the skills to pursue productive and rewarding lives.
Sound and fury will be fine, as long as it signifies something.