Less than 24 hours after dividing 5-4 along racial and gender lines, most Buffalo Board of Education members called the failed bid to oust Superintendent Pamela Brown old news and said it’s time to move forward.
“I will fully support Pamela Brown,” pledged John Licata, who tried to oust her Wednesday night after voting to hire her last year. “The board has voted. The issue is done, and we have to move forward.”
Brown said Thursday she is here to stay and that she is capable of leading the district.
“I certainly am up to the job,” she said. “I know there’s been some mention of my not having managerial experience. I have about 20 years of experience managing schools and large departments in other school districts. I have managed thousands of people prior to coming to Buffalo.”
But not every board member is convinced. Carl Paladino pledged Thursday to keep trying to oust Brown a little more than a year into her contract. He said he intends to reintroduce his resolution to fire her, is appealing to the state education commissioner to have the board president removed from office and may organize a rally of supporters in favor of Brown’s ouster.
Getting rid of Brown is a matter of time, he said. If not now, then by next July, after the election of three at-large board members in May.
“At the latest, next July 1 she will be discharged,” he said, referring to the date when those elected in May take office.
With Paladino continuing to push for Brown’s ouster after past references to black female board members as “the sisterhood,” the debate has taken on racial overtones. One Brown supporter repeatedly referred to Paladino, the Park District representative, as “Mr. White Man” during the public comment section of Wednesday night’s meeting.
When the board finally voted, the result was split, with five black women supporting Brown, and four white men trying to oust her.
Both Paladino and those who voted with him denied any racial intent, while Brown supporters Sharon Belton-Cottman, Mary Ruth Kapsiak and board President Barbara Seals Nevergold say the divisiveness on the board is based on racism and sexism by one person in particular – Paladino.
But Regent Robert Bennett said that the crux of the matter is educating children, not race, and that the board needs to get back to that despite the fact that many speakers Wednesday night brought up race.
“If a person criticizes a person about credentials, that has nothing to do with color or religion,” Bennett said.
Board member James Sampson said Thursday he didn’t know if Wednesday’s meeting was the start of a never-ending quest to oust the superintendent. “If Carl were to ask me, I would suggest that he provide some breathing room before he brings it up again,” he said.
Much like Sampson, Jason McCarthy – one of two board member who voted against Brown’s hiring last year – did not have a sense of whether the effort to oust her will continue.
“I don’t know at this point,” McCarthy said. “We don’t have a fifth vote.”
The mounting pressures facing the superintendent and district leaders extend well beyond the board.
Both State Education Commissioner John King Jr. and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have expressed disappointment over the district’s achievement levels, with King particularly critical of the district’s repeated inability to submit acceptable grant applications and reform plans.
The District Parent Coordinating Council also has been critical. Most recently, DPCC President Samuel Radford III asked for a state opinion on whether School Board members should be removed for “willfully” violating state law.
Sampson said he is “very concerned” about how the district is going to operate now and about Brown’s performance. He said it’s up to the superintendent to set up a mechanism for how everyone will work together.
“How can a board that’s so obviously divided continue to provide leadership? I think that’s something the board, the board president and – equally as important – the superintendent has to address,” Sampson said.
A lot of any progress from this point on depends on how Brown responds to the 5-4 vote, he said. He hopes she took it as a call to engage and listen to people and to find some common ground with those who disagree with her.
“That’s the demonstration of leadership. This will be a test of her ability to lead,” Sampson said.
Even though he pledged his support, Licata said that does not mean that board members will “blindly” follow the superintendent. He pointed out that Brown’s proposal to hire former TV news reporter Lorey Schultz as a public relations specialist for $115,000 a year failed Wednesday night in a 6-2 vote.
The public can expect to see a lot more productivity and a lot less divisiveness from the board, he said.
Nevergold, the board president, said she hopes to heal the rift by working with McCarthy to arrange a board retreat as soon as possible with the help of the New York State School Boards Association.
“I think that’s going to be essential,” she said. The retreat would include the superintendent. “The idea is, how do we all work together, the superintendent and the board?”
Repeated efforts to dismiss Brown are a waste of resources and brainpower that should be redirected toward more pressing district issues, Nevergold said.
“Removing one person and trying to replace that person really creates a lot of turmoil,” she stated. “Who is to fill that vacuum? What’s the plan? And to me, that’s a major question that people should be asking. I’ve heard some rumors, but I haven’t heard a transition plan proposed.”
If leadership is at issue, she said, specific problems should be identified, and Brown should be given a time frame to implement a remedy.
“That’s kind of a mature way, and an open way, to deal with the issue instead of, ‘Let’s cut off her head,’ ” Nevergold said. She also said she recognizes that Paladino is angry with her, but she said she will continue to reach out to him despite what she described as his rhetoric, name-calling and misrepresentation.
Board member Theresa Harris-Tigg said she believes the district is headed in the right direction and that the “sideshows are behind us.”
“The decision has been made. We have a superintendent. She has a contract. We have to move forward so that we are supporting our children,” Harris-Tigg said. “Does that mean that as individual board members we’re not looking from our own lenses? Does that mean we will never disagree? Sure, we’ll disagree, but we’re going to have to move forward. We have to get things done.”
Her comments echoed sentiments from Bennett, who said all of the board members are going to have to focus on issues besides personalities and that the conversation has to turn to the fundamental issues of learning.
“I don’t think they have much of a choice,” the state regent said. “I think the conversation must turn quickly as to whether the children in our care are getting a sound education, and many indicators say that’s not happening.”
Brown said that even though district officials sometimes disagree, she will keep focusing on the needs of children. But her job performance will still be scrutinized.
“She’s on watch right now. She’s one vote away from being terminated. I’d be very concerned if I were her,” McCarthy said, adding that he hears from teachers and principals daily who feel “they don’t have somebody who’s got their back.”
He said he’s not sure if Brown can meet the challenges of providing better leadership and improving student performance.
“I’m not confident. That’s why I voted the way I did. If I was confident ... I would have voted for her,” he said. “She’s got to convince me otherwise.”