Buffalo School Superintendent Pamela C. Brown is emphatic that she will stay in her position, despite the repeated efforts to oust her.
But keeping her job hangs on more than rejecting a lucrative buyout offer recently made by a group of business leaders.
With the district facing heightened scrutiny from local parent groups to the Governor’s Office, the coming months bring several events – an evaluation, a new legislative session and a School Board election – that could ultimately influence who controls Buffalo’s struggling school system.
The buyout – and Brown’s very public rejection of it – adds to the growing political tensions surrounding Buffalo Public Schools.
A slim majority of the Buffalo School Board continues to support Brown.
But the board will conduct its first evaluation of her job performance this month.
Although a previous board evaluated Brown, her next evaluation will be the first time current board members formally assess her performance. In addition, the board members will have an opportunity to share their concerns and set goals for her to move the district forward.
Some School Board members have already become Brown’s loudest critics, saying she fails to communicate effectively and lacks vision. They said she makes costly decisions without consulting board members, her publicly elected bosses.
The evaluation could potentially serve as a turning point for Brown.
“If it’s sufficiently negative, the discussion could shift dramatically,” said James M. Sampson, one of the four board members who voted to oust Brown in September.
In response to recent criticism, Brown has pointed to the progress she has made with the school district. She cited a decrease in short-term suspensions and chronic absenteeism among pupils and an increase in student enrollment. Brown also says the district’s graduation rate has increased, along with the percentage of students passing state English and math exams in the 11th grade.
Some of her supporters have spoken out in her defense, saying community leaders need to refocus their efforts on working with Brown, not against her. Those supporters say the politics distract from the mission of the district: teaching the city’s children.
“If people really cared about the kids this wouldn’t be about getting rid of the superintendent, it would be about working together,” said Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phillip Rumore. “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it.”
Buffalo School Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold sat beside Brown during a news conference earlier this week to address the buyout and show her support for the superintendent.
“The adults need to get along and put the children first,” she told the media.
Still, Nevergold and other supporters acknowledge there is room for improvement, particularly when it comes to Brown’s dealings with the public.
“There are some concerns on the board,” said board member Theresa Harris-Tigg, who was among the majority that rejected Brown’s dismissal in September. “Nobody’s perfect. She’s working very hard. But there are certainly some things she could work on.”
Brown is not the only one feeling pressure.
Buffalo School Board members are hearing from state leaders, who have voiced frustrations about the district’s inability to improve its abysmal student performance, some going so far as to call for the ability of the state to take over districts that fail to show progress.
State Education Commissioner John King has supported legislation that would give the Board of Regents the authority to take control of districts that fail to show academic and financial solvency.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in August called for a “death penalty” for low-performing schools and districts. Buffalo is one of the poorest performing districts in the state. He is expected to call education a top priority during his State of the State address next week, potentially laying out specific plans for the state’s schools.
Although some local leaders believe something as dramatic as a state takeover is unlikely, they acknowledge the state could exercise another form of control. That might include offering or restricting aid based on some criteria.
“The commissioner is very, very concerned, and I share his concern,” said Robert Bennett, chancellor emeritus to the New York State Board of Regents. “Everyone expects this to be a good year for state aid. I think we want to attach more strings to that.”
Meanwhile, Mayor Byron W. Brown came out this week with his strongest statements to date about the Buffalo schools, vowing to take an unprecedented role of oversight. He also was the go-between in the business community’s offer of a half-million dollars to buy out the school superintendent’s contract.
Following his swearing-in ceremony, the mayor was vague about his support for the superintendent. Instead, he said in the coming year he plans to visit schools, attend meetings and seek input from community stakeholders about the direction of the district.
“He’s coming into his third term now. He will be looking to leave a legacy,” Robert D. Gioia, president of the Oishei Foundation, said of the mayor’s potential involvement.
Several sources told The News that Gioia was at the center of the effort to raise private dollars to offer Superintendent Brown a buyout.
Intervention by a mayor is not an unprecedented tactic used to turn around struggling school systems.
Outgoing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made education one of the priorities of his 12-year tenure, going so far as to seize control of the nation’s largest school system and take responsibility for its performance at a time state and federal standards were becoming more stringent.
Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy waged a similar effort to take control of the Rochester schools when he was mayor there, but he was met by resistance from the community.
These events will all lead up to a critical Buffalo School Board election in May. Three at-large seats are up for grabs, and one of Brown’s main critics, Carl Paladino, has pledged to put up as much money as it takes to elect candidates who will help him remove the superintendent.
“It all depends on the candidates they put forward,” said board member Jason McCarthy, who voted to remove Brown in September. “There are a lot of names already out there, but I think you’ll hear more from them in the next week.”
Even if Paladino can successfully turn the support of the board, that won’t likely bring an end to the politics surrounding the district.
“I’m cautious about the election,” Sampson said. “You don’t know. Who’s going to run? Who’s going to prevail?
“Then the next piece is, ‘OK, you’re effective in removing her. OK. Now what’s next?”