In his first appearance as the new leader of the Buffalo Public Schools, Donald A. Ogilvie promised Wednesday to shift the focus of the district to where it matters most – what happens in the classroom.
“As far as the transition is concerned we must proceed with purpose,” he said. “Everything should be tied to instruction.”
But like so many before him – many of them promising the very same – Ogilvie’s entry to the post was marked by the same contention and division that has come to define the Buffalo Board of Education.
In a rare move, the School Board opted to conduct its entire conversation about Ogilvie’s appointment in an open meeting rather than behind closed doors in an executive session as originally planned.
The board moved in that direction almost immediately after the board convened at 4 p.m., when members who make up the new minority raised an impassioned criticism of the process by which the board majority drafted Ogilvie’s contract.
Although the old board had discussed a search process and drafted a job description, it was never posted. Instead, board President James M. Sampson sent fellow board members an email over the weekend notifying them of his intent to bring the contract for a vote at this week’s meeting.
As the debate raged on, newcomer Larry Quinn moved to continue the discussion in an open setting, questioning the necessity of an executive session.
What ensued was roughly two hours of tense and passionate arguments from both sides of the nine-member board, underscoring the harsh division that has mired the group in recent history.
Those in the new minority accused their colleagues of striking the deal with Ogilvie in secret, flinging many of the same insults those in the new majority once hurled in their direction.
Those in the new majority initially reacted by defending the process and pointing out that just last month they sat on the opposite side of the argument. Eventually, however, they acquiesced into quiet, letting their colleagues have their say.
Ultimately, Ogilvie – who was waiting outside the boardroom – asked to come address the criticism personally.
“You’re starting off, you understand, with a minus for credibility,” former board President Barbara A. Seals Nevergold told him. “That’s going to need some real work and some real effort.”
Ogilvie promised to meet with all members of the board – as early as Thursday – and committed to speaking with parents and community members.
He promised better communication and procedural changes, such as consulting with board members on ideas well before bringing resolutions before them to vote on.
He also emphasized classroom instruction and the redirection of resources to ensure students and teachers have what they need to succeed.
In an impromptu news conference after his appointment, Ogilvie said he is “personally committed” to the district and wants to make a difference. What’s more, he had been interested in the position of Buffalo superintendent for years but never acted on it. But after he recently retired as superintendent of Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services, several opportunities came his way, including this one.
However, Ogilvie said, he will not pursue the permanent superintendent job. “I’m blessed with some experience and some stamina and the ability to work with people and get things done. They don’t need me for the long term. I would like to do this now,” he said.
Part of his focus as the incoming interim superintendent will be evaluating every Central Office position and possibly downsizing the department, he said.
One of his main goals is to improve the overall state of the district, especially in terms of student achievement, but he’s not looking at making strides by a few percentage points, and he believes that the district will need to go through a full school year cycle to see substantial progress.
“It’s not that we devote ourselves to inching up a percentage point. It’s that we have a trajectory that shows improvement,” he said.
Among his first tasks as interim superintendent is to “bring the temperature down,” referring to the antagonistic climate among board members, four of whom abstained rather than outright voting against him. “As we begin to work together … we’ll forge a good relationship. We’ll make a difference. I’m going to show up everyday and do something that will improve classroom practices,” he said.
Ogilvie also talked about his relationship with the state Education Department. His supporters view him as someone who can bridge the gap between the local schools and state educational officials. “After 17 years at BOCES, I know State Ed, said Ogilvie, 68. “Can you change State Ed’s mind on something? Sometimes.”
Ogilvie’s appointment passed with five votes from the new majority: Sampson and Quinn, along with Jason M. McCarthy, Carl P. Paladino and Patti Bowers Pierce.
In an interesting move, the other four members – Nevergold, Theresa A. Harris-Tigg, Sharon M. Belton-Cottman and Mary Ruth Kapsiak – abstained rather than vote against Ogilvie’s appointment.
If the vote set some sort of stage for what is to come for the Buffalo schools, what that may be is still unclear.
“I’d like everyone to think about as they vote how to move this district forward,” Sampson appealed to his colleagues.
But board presidents have made that same appeal before, and moving forward never comes easy for the Buffalo Public Schools.
“I’m concerned that if you don’t follow the person who is trying to lead, you’re going to run into the same problems,” Belton-Cottman cautioned Ogilvie. “I’m concerned that when you do something you are not supposed to do, you will be in the same position.”