As ugly and divisive as it was, the Buffalo School Board elections were only prelude. What follows may make the campaign seem mild by comparison, but it could also point the way toward improved performance by both the district and its students. That critical work has to happen.
The work has begun many times before, of course, but it has never come close to delivering the sound, basic education to which all New York students are entitled. Will this time be different? Without a doubt, it will be that. Different how, is the question.
As expected, the election has put Buffalo developer Carl P. Paladino on the School Board. Paladino won South Buffalo’s Park District with 79 percent of the vote. His arrival on the School Board is going to make a difference in both the noise level and the district’s tolerance of mediocrity. He will be abrasive and dismissive of those who don’t see things his way. Some of that will be helpful in a district that has been unable to change its trajectory.
But Paladino likely won’t get far if he is the lone, loud, uncontrolled voice. He is but one of nine members and while he will be able to command attention, he needs to form partnerships with other like-minded members to be effective. Little in his public life suggests that skill to be among his strengths, but that will be the requirement if he is to translate his obvious passion for fixing Buffalo schools into better-educated students graduating in ever-increasing numbers.
He certainly has some good ideas. He wants to give teachers a raise and a new contract – their current one expired nine years ago – in exchange for a longer school day and a longer school year. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has also pledged money to districts that increase classroom time for students. Partners, at last.
Paladino has also drawn a bead on the district’s central office, which has been much criticized in the past, and has little good to say about the district’s new superintendent, Pamela C. Brown. It is the board’s job to evaluate the superintendent’s performance, of course, and we are in favor of board members setting high expectations of the district’s chief executive.
Nor do we have any issue with a review of central office performance, though the board needs to avoid micromanaging that has plagued the district in the past.
At least two other board members may be obvious partners in seeking to improve the district. Newly elected member James M. Sampson also brings a reformer’s approach to the job. The new West District representative is board president of Buffalo ReformED, an education reform group, and chairman of the Erie County control board. If Paladino can channel some of his passion through Sampson’s cooler chalice, they might form a potent team.
In addition, the re-election of Jason McCarthy in the North District bodes well, although both of his opponents – Susan Gillick and Wendy Mistretta – could also have been effective board members. But McCarthy has a record of public-interest accomplishment and has shown himself to be devoted to improving the district.
Less certain is the approach that will be taken by newcomer Theresa Harris-Tigg, who soundly defeated incumbent Rosalyn Taylor, a write-in candidate. Taylor had been endorsed by both the Buffalo Teachers Federation and New York State United Teachers, so the public can expect something different in the East District.
It is important now for like-minded board members to form alliances to push for the changes that can make a difference here. They should look to other urban districts that have improved student performances for clues on how to proceed. Columbus, Ohio, and Charlotte, N.C., are good places to start.
Lines are about to be drawn more sharply now than they have ever been. Anyone troubled over whose side to take can apply this test: Who is acting on behalf of the students?