A little more than a year into Pamela C. Brown’s tenure as superintendent, Buffalonians are unimpressed with her job performance, according to a recent Siena College poll commissioned by The Buffalo News and WGRZ-TV.
Thirty-five percent of registered voters in the city who were polled by telephone last week said they thought Brown’s performance was poor. An equal number said they thought it was fair.
At the same time, city residents are divided in their overall opinion of one of the city’s newest School Board members, developer Carl P. Paladino – with essentially as many people rating him favorable as those rating him unfavorable.
But despite the mixed feelings on Paladino, a solid majority of city residents – 61 percent – say they think that as a School Board member, he is likely to be effective at enhancing the quality of the Buffalo Public Schools.
“You have the former gubernatorial candidate, who is a lightning rod in many ways, who has a fairly evenly divided favorability rating,” said Steven Greenberg, a Siena College pollster. “But do voters think that Paladino will be effective at making the public schools better in Buffalo as a member of the board? Yeah.
“Then you have Pamela Brown, who is essentially underwater. Buffalo voters are not in love with the direction of the schools right now in terms of the job the superintendent is doing.”
Many of the poll respondents who were interviewed for this story cited recent problems that have arisen under her leadership as evidence of what they see as her lack of effectiveness. Among those problems: the state’s rejection of turnaround plans for East and Lafayette high schools and the district’s trouble putting together an adequate plan to accommodate more than 2,200 students who want to transfer out of failing schools.
“In my opinion, she’s not doing a very good job with anything – her or the School Board,” said Mickey Wachowicz, 70, a retired city parks worker who lives in Kaisertown. “What have they accomplished? They keep giving the state plans they can’t approve.”
Poll respondents who were interviewed for this story also cited overall problems within the district – a graduation rate that hovers around 50 percent, declining enrollment, attendance problems – that predate Brown’s arrival in Buffalo.
“The kids are not passing; half of them are failing,” said Tamiko Beckham, a homemaker living in the Masten District. “But the lady they’ve got in charge – they’re trying to blame her for things that are already messed up.”
Beckham, like many others interviewed for this story, pointed to a lack of parental involvement in children’s education as one of the primary problems in the schools – and, along with that, a lack of discipline that starts at home.
“With my grandbabies, I show up and let them know I’m interested in their education. I make sure the homework gets done. But a lot of parents, for some reason, don’t do that,” said Beckham, who is 50. “A lot of kids act out because they can’t read or can’t do things. Kids go to school, and they’re hitting each other and hitting the teachers. The teachers are scared. It’s a hot mess.”
Of the 966 registered voters in the city who responded to the Siena College poll, 5 percent said they thought Brown was doing an excellent job; 14 percent said she was doing a good job.
Brown said she appreciates the fact that Buffalonians recognize the need for drastic improvements in the district. At the same time, she said, it’s important for people to know the district has made significant strides under her leadership.
“As a result of the work we have done in the past year, our graduation and attendance rates have increased, student behavior has improved, as evidenced by a 12 percent reduction in short-term suspensions, and almost all graduating seniors applied to college or vocational school,” she said. “That is unprecedented in the City of Buffalo. We are creating a college-going culture here.”
Brown’s job ratings varied significantly among people of different races. Forty-two percent of African-Americans rated her job performance good or excellent, compared with 11 percent of whites.
Asked overall how they view Brown – as opposed to her job performance, specifically – 35 percent of all poll respondents said they see her unfavorably, while 28 percent rated her favorably. The largest group, though – 37 percent – said they didn’t know or had no opinion.
Among African-Americans, Brown’s favorability rating was much higher – 59 percent – compared with 17 percent of whites who rated her favorably.
The poll had a margin of error of 3.2 percent.
Paladino ‘stirs the pot’
City residents are about equally split in their feelings about Paladino, with 44 percent giving him a favorable rating and 47 percent giving him an unfavorable rating.
But a solid majority – 61 percent – think he will be either somewhat effective or very effective at enhancing the quality of the public schools in Buffalo. That means that a significant number of people who don’t like Paladino nevertheless think he will make a positive difference on the School Board.
“I personally despise Carl Paladino,” said Jim Damon, a 32-year-old substitute teacher. “As a person, he’s been nice to me whenever I’ve met him. But as far as his policies, I don’t like him. But him being on the School Board – I don’t look at it as a negative thing. He stirs the pot.”
Like many Buffalonians interviewed for this story, Damon said he’s frustrated with the district’s poor results, and while he doesn’t necessarily know what the solution is, he knows the system isn’t working.
“We have to get rid of the status quo,” said Damon, a West Side resident. “I’m willing at this point to embrace anything that might make things better. I don’t endorse the way he’ll go about trying to make those changes, because he’s abrasive. But he might bring things to the table – there might be some radical idea he has that we can sort of moderate.”
Paladino said the problems in the district are much worse than he realized before he took office in July.
“Turning a ship that’s been going 100 miles an hour in the wrong direction is very difficult. You have no idea how bad it really is,” he said. “Teachers are still intimidated. Principals are still intimidated to speak out. I’m slowly getting that door open. I am able to protect a lot of them that want to speak their mind, and it will get better.”
A higher percentage of Republicans said they thought Paladino would be effective on the School Board – 81 percent of Republicans, compared with 57 percent of Democrats. Whites also had higher hopes for him, with 66 percent saying they thought he would be effective, compared with 48 percent of African-Americans.
Split on raising tax levy
While there are many approaches to improving outcomes in Buffalo’s public schools, two seem to be cited rather frequently – pumping more of the city’s tax revenue into the district and having the state take over the schools.
Neither seems to have the support of the majority of city residents.
Buffalo currently gives the schools about half of its tax levy – a huge amount for city government, but a sum that accounts for less than 10 percent of the school district’s budget.
The city is required by state law to maintain its current level of appropriations, but the Common Council could opt to give more.
The city has maintained the same level of support for the schools for the past several years.
Suburban school districts levy taxes directly, and they can set their tax rates, which are subject to voter approval. The Buffalo schools do not levy taxes directly. Rather, they get most of their financial support from the state; the local portion is raised through taxes levied by the city government and passed along to the Buffalo schools.
Slightly more city residents – 49 percent – favor increasing that amount than those who oppose it, 44 percent. A majority of Democrats, 53 percent, favor increasing the city’s contribution to the schools, while only 34 percent of Republicans favor an increase.
Several people interviewed compared the programs in city schools with those in neighboring suburban districts, noting that students in other districts generally have more sports, music and art programs, along with a broader offering of elective courses.
“I don’t know what money Amherst gives, but I know the schools there are better off,” said Monica Jardine, a retired University at Buffalo professor.
At the same time, she said, a balance needs to be struck.
“I think people feel very overburdened by the level of taxation already,” she said.
For the past few years, Regent Robert M. Bennett and Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. have frequently cited state legislation that would pave the way for the state to essentially unseat the school boards in failing districts and assume authority.
The legislation has been introduced multiple times since 2010 but has never gained traction, as elected officials are generally reluctant to take steps to supersede the democratic process that elects the local school board. But when Bennett and King express their frustration with the Buffalo schools, they often point to the takeover bill as a possible solution.
Buffalonians are split on the idea, with slightly more opposed to it. Forty-seven percent opposed the possibility of a state takeover, while 41 percent were in favor. White city residents were evenly split on the idea, while a clear majority of African-Americans – 56 percent – opposed it, and 31 percent supported it.
Some of those opposed to a state takeover said they lacked confidence in the state Education Department.
“I don’t think it would make much difference, other than to have morale be much lower than it already is for teachers and for principals,” said one North Buffalo resident who is a retired teacher. “It’s sort of saying that we failed. ‘You’re doing a poor job, and the only thing left to do is to make the decisions for you.’ It’s kind of disempowering them.”
Others said they felt the district had little to lose by having the state take over.
“It might work out a little better for us if we had the state step in, with the different programs they offer,” said Cedrick Lenard, an East Side father who works in a bakery. “We have to find a way to make school more interesting for the kids.”
Greenberg, the pollster, noted that while education is of prime concern to Buffalonians, there seems to be little consensus regarding how to move forward.
“Education right now is an issue that divides the voters of Buffalo into different camps,” he said. “There is just no strong view one way or the other. The strongest view there is that maybe the new board member – maybe Carl Paladino can be effective in making things better.”