It doesn't take a political mastermind to figure out why Mayor Byron Brown is cautious when it comes to talking about the Buffalo Public Schools.
It's a no-win situation for a mayor who spends half the city's taxes on schools but has little control over the system.
The district is a mess – that's been clear well before a state-appointed consultant, distinguished educator Judy Elliott, issued a blistering assessment of the system's central office leadership earlier this month.
Elliott's report provides a refreshingly frank look at some of the problems plaguing the district: lack of coherent oversight from central office administrators, not enough support for schools facing some of the toughest challenges in the district and little evidence that data is used to guide decision-making.
The report describes a district that has left failing schools flailing on their own with little guidance or support from top staff.
And it underpins a concern that a group of parents has been complaining about for years: This, Elliott said, is a district of “have and have-not” schools.
What Elliott heard from principals of the district's 28 most-troubled schools – flagged by the state as “priority schools” – was that they aren't given the right resources to deal with the challenges they face.
“Priority School principals report that they receive a disproportionate number of credit deficient, low skill and behaviorally challenged students for whom they do not receive adequate resources,” Elliott wrote.
That comes awfully close to acknowledging that some schools have become dumping grounds for students who have the most trouble learning.
It also smacks of an unequal system, where students with the most challenges are stuck in schools without the right support to help them improve.
That ought to anger anyone who has a stake in the future of this city – including Mayor Brown. You can go to a school that is among the best in the nation. You can go to a school where your odds of graduating on time are dismal. Many in the middle – and whose parents can afford it – have fled the system.
It's not that the mayor has ignored the schools. He made an early commitment to Say Yes to Education. He added more resource officers to schools and focused on cleaning up neighborhoods around school buildings. As mayor, he oversees the ongoing school construction projects, and in his first year in office, he increased city aid to the schools. He has met with parents and offered them his support.
But what residents tend to hear publicly from Brown on the subject is more caution than passion.
It may be that the mayor realizes the limits of his office. Former Mayor Anthony M. Masiello pushed hard for the power to appoint School Board members, but the idea was rejected.
What's energizing about Elliott's report was not just that it straightforwardly pinpointed where the school district's leadership has failed, but the recommendations for change were developed in conjunction with new Superintendent Pamela C. Brown.
There's a glimmer of hope that this is a district under new leadership that can turn itself around.
Now just might be an opportune time for the mayor to make it clear that schools are among his top priorities.

But what residents tend to hear publicly from Brown on the subject is more caution than passion.