James M. Sampson said he wants to be elected to the Buffalo Board of Education because he’s a problem-solver. And in his opinion, more problems could be solved if the school district engaged parents more and micromanaged less.
“The School Board is spending more time being just another level of administration rather than leading and governing,” he said.
Sampson, 65, is president and CEO of Gateway-Longview, an area provider of child services. He has also been a trustee and founding member of West Buffalo Charter School since 2009. Though Gateway-Longview does business with the school district, Sampson will retire from the company in August and said he doesn’t anticipate any conflict of interest.
He graduated from the University at Buffalo and earned his master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin. His grown children attended Wisconsin public schools. He is chairman of the bipartisan Buffalo control board and served on the transition teams of both former Republican County Executive Chris Collins and current Democratic County Executive Mark Poloncarz.
“I try to be the least-partisan person I can possibly be,” Sampson said. “I’m able to work in complex, highly conflicted environments and come out with some solutions.”
Sampson’s campaign platform recommends a radical change in school district structure.
“We still are fundamentally doing the same thing we were doing 100 years ago in terms of our structure,” he said.
He criticized the district for being “clearly run as a top-down hierarchy” and supports more decentralization of central office authority and responsibility. The central office should serve more as a management support organization, he said, giving more authority to principals over budgeting, hiring and curriculum.
He said the School Board micromanages but remains uninformed and unable to lead on critical issues that are key to turning around schools. He recalled a recent meeting in which the board spent an hour bringing in lawyers to determine whether the District Parent Coordinating Council had the right to endorse School Board candidates.
“What a waste of time,” he said.
The board needs more training to ask the right questions and should use student performance data better, especially at the high school level, he said.
Sampson said the district should help parents be involved in all phases of district operation by making board meetings and parent-teacher conferences easier to attend, being more transparent regarding school performance and decision-making, and meeting regularly with the parent council.
He said he’s capable of meeting the needs of a diverse West District population and used his involvement with the West Buffalo Charter School, which opened in August 2012, as an example of how he supported programs tailored to English language learners.
Given his role with that school, he’s a strong advocate of charter schools “as part of a larger plan to improve overall district performance.”
He also believes teachers should be required to live in Buffalo, supports the reinstatement of neighborhood schools and believes Superintendent Pamela Brown is moving the district in the right direction, though he added that it’s still too early to say for sure.
Sampson is a strong contender for the West District seat because of his broad base of support and well-financed campaign. Though he told The Buffalo News early in his campaign that he expected to raise about $7,000, he is raising far more than that and admitted that his earlier figure was “naive.”
He’s been embraced by the business community and is also well regarded by leaders with the District Parent Coordinating Council, which cannot officially endorse anyone.
Sampson was a former board member with the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, which serves as the city’s Chamber of Commerce, and will receive their support. Sampson, a Democrat, also reached out to the chairman of the city’s Republican Party and received help in the circulation of his petitions.