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Urban education is one of the thorniest public policy issues in communities across America, and it’s taking center stage in the Buffalo mayoral race.

As problems in the Buffalo Public Schools make headlines daily, Mayor Byron W. Brown is working to reverse public perceptions that he has not been engaged in the issue, while challenger Bernard A. Tolbert said he would seek a change in state law to obtain mayoral control over the district.

Democratic voters will choose between Brown and Tolbert in the Democratic primary Sept. 10.

The candidates’ positions on education contrast sharply.

Brown is quick to remind the public, when asked about the poor graduation rates, that the Mayor’s Office has no authority over the school district. He has also not sought power to appoint board members or the superintendent, and he notes that the State Legislature has rarely changed the law to allow mayors more control.

“I stand ready, willing and able, if asked to intercede in these issues. But the way the governance structure exists, the superintendent of schools doesn’t have to respond to me. The commissioner of education doesn’t have to speak to me,” Brown said.

Tolbert, meanwhile, has said he would like the power to appoint the Board of Education’s three at-large members and the superintendent. When asked, he has supported the idea of control over the majority of the entire nine-member board.

“I recognize there are strong concerns there, and my task would be convincing people that they would have a partner in the Mayor’s Office who would be fully engaged in doing the right thing,” said Tolbert, former special agent in charge of the FBI office in Buffalo.

Voter concern is evident

The crisis in the Buffalo schools includes a graduation rate that hovers around 50 percent. Test scores for students in grades 3 through 8 show that less than 10 percent are proficient in math, and less than 12 percent are proficient in English.

State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr.’s frequent rebukes of the district have led to speculation that the Department of Education might have considered a takeover of the Buffalo schools. The district also put millions of dollars of federal grant money at risk by its delays in submitting acceptable turnaround plans for East and Lafayette high schools before finally doing so Friday, and its plan for allowing all students in low-performing schools to be educated elsewhere has yet to win state approval.

Voters seem to be well aware of the problems.

More than half of voters – 54 percent – gave the schools a poor rating in a Siena Research Institute poll of 1,030 city residents conducted June 23-27 and commissioned by The Buffalo News and WGRZ-TV. One percent of voters said the quality of public schools is excellent, 10 percent said they are good, and 26 percent said they were fair; 9 percent said they did not know enough.

Respondents to a second Siena poll taken Aug. 11-13 also gave poor grades to Superintendent Pamela C. Brown, who has been in her job for little more than a year: Seventy percent said she is doing a fair or poor job.

While the mayor does not have a role in governing the school district, the mayor can use his prestige and powers of persuasion behind the scenes.

The state of the school system has come up frequently during the campaign, and Tolbert and Republican candidate Sergio R. Rodriguez have said that whoever occupies the Mayor’s Office can do more.

“In my estimation, the mayor has not been a leader in the area of education,” Tolbert said.

Despite the legal restrictions on what the mayor can do, the city’s top elected leader should speak out about the problems in the district and push for reforms, said Tolbert, who Saturday blasted the School Board for approving a strategic plan before getting public input at four scheduled community hearings on the document, a move he said makes the upcoming hearings nothing more than “informational sessions.”

Both oppose state takeover

Tolbert said that his push for mayoral control of the district might not be popular but that he’s willing to “throw tradition out the window.”

Tolbert also favors lengthening the time school buildings are open, as a way of keeping students off the street, and he supports reusing school buildings for charter schools and state legislation that would broaden school choice.

In a plan he details on his website, Tolbert also says he favors a tablet or laptop computer for every student and extended hours and transportation access to libraries.

He also proposes appointing a deputy mayor whose sole responsibility would be children and education.

Brown appointed a deputy mayor, Ellen E. Grant, in December to be a liaison to the district and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

Tolbert and Brown both oppose a state takeover of the district. The August poll by Siena, which surveyed 966 registered voters, showed that 41 percent were in favor of a state takeover and that 47 percent were opposed.

When it comes to funding the district, the poll showed that 49 percent of voters support increasing the amount of local tax revenue provided to the district, and 44 percent were opposed.

Among Democrats, 53 percent favored more tax revenue going to the district, and 41 percent were opposed.

The mayor has urged that the superintendent be given flexibility to manage the district, and he has not sought control of it or intervened in its affairs. He has also tried to work with the three superintendents during his tenure, instead of being at odds with them, he said.

“If I come down to the School Board meeting as a community activist, versus being mayor of the City of Buffalo, there are some that might take that as me trying to grandstand for political benefit,” he said.

‘Haven’t been silent’

Brown notes that he has done other things, including increasing aid to the district by $2 million when he was elected mayor, demolishing 1,500 problem structures around schools at a cost of $24 million, and increasing the number of school resource officers, as well as designating a chief of police for school safety and security.

He was also an early supporter of Say Yes to Buffalo, which provides college scholarships for qualifying students, and recently allocated $400,000 of city funds to restore instrumental music instruction. His budget this year allows for the appointment of two attendance teachers and a truancy aide.

“So, I haven’t been silent,” Brown said. “I have been very active, but I have been active in a way that gives me the ability, that tries to move people in different positive directions to try to get things done.”

email: jterreri@buffnews.com