It’s no surprise that the Buffalo School Board is deeply divided over who should be the district’s next interim superintendent and how that person should be picked.
But the best way to understand why the board is so split when it comes to future leadership is to understand how each side sees “reality” in the Buffalo Public Schools.
The view of the current board majority goes like this: The district isn’t perfect, but there’s a lot more going right than going wrong.
Those members recount positive developments often described by Superintendent Pamela C. Brown: The graduation rate is up, suspensions are down, and some standardized test results are showing major gains. Teachers also are embracing more data-driven instruction.
Therefore, these board members contend, what the district needs is a leader who can continue to build on this good work and capitalize on the foundation already laid by Brown before she became a victim of malicious politics.
The view of the current minority and the incoming board members who will combine with them to form a new majority on July 1 goes like this: The district is broken.
Half the students don’t graduate, and 44 out of 56 schools are considered “failing.” The state has repeatedly rejected district improvement plans. Parents who want to transfer their kids out of failing public schools have no better place to send them.
Therefore, they contend, what the district needs is a leader who will embrace radical change, fix what’s broken, and spearhead a plan to transform failing schools as rapidly as possible. That plan would likely include some school closures and charter-school conversions.
These two points of view have no natural intersection. So while board members talk about reaching a “consensus” on a leadership plan moving forward, the obvious takeaway is that any consensus is unlikely.
“It will be difficult,” conceded President Barbara Seals Nevergold. “It has been a divided board for some time, and it looks like it will continue to be divided.”
That isn’t stopping her from trying to find common ground, though. Nevergold has called another special meeting for 4 p.m. Wednesday to continue the conversation started last week about how to select the next interim superintendent.
Both sides agree that it would be unwise to conduct a full-scale search for a permanent superintendent immediately. Instead, they all want a longer-term interim superintendent already familiar with the district who can provide stability for no more than a year or so.
That’s pretty much all everyone agrees on.
The “interim superintendent” label actually refers to two different people. One is the person who will take over for Brown the minute she leaves the district, occupying the leadership position anywhere from a few days to a few months. The other is the person who will subsequently take over as interim superintendent for a longer period of one to two years.
The current majority wants interim Deputy Superintendent Mary Guinn to serve as the immediate interim successor.
The incoming majority, on the other hand, wants to see Chief Financial Officer/Chief Operating Officer Barbara Smith in that temporary role.
Looking farther out, the two board factions also have different opinions about how a longer-term interim candidate should be chosen.
The current board majority – Nevergold, Sharon Belton-Cottman, Mary Ruth Kapsiak, Florence Johnson and Theresa Harris-Tigg – would like any candidate to be vetted by the community, as well as the board.
“I just believe we should take a bit more time,” Nevergold said. “I think we should lay out a process that’s open and that allows for some community input, because the community certainly has had a lot of input in regards to Dr. Brown.”
Incoming majority members – incumbents James Sampson, Jason McCarthy and Carl Paladino and board members-elect Larry Quinn and Patti Bowers Pierce – say the May election has already illustrated the public’s desire for a leader who would serve as a district “change agent.”
“We’ve got a lot of stuff that has to get done,” Sampson said, “so I don’t think that having a large community forum at this time would be useful.”
Sampson, who expects to become the next board president, said he reached out to Nevergold on Friday to see if the two of them could have a meeting of the minds on a leadership selection process. But Nevergold responded that she’s committed to a transparent process and that those discussions should take place with the full board.
“Urgency” is the drumbeat for the incoming board majority, with some members saying they’d like to see agreement on a longer-term interim superintendent by July 1, the day the new board is seated, so that the work of overhauling the district can begin right away.
“I’m concerned that there’s not an urgency to try to find replacements,” McCarthy said. “That’s the frustrating part. There’s always an excuse to delay, and enough is enough.”
Collecting the résumés of interested candidates should begin now, he said.
Sampson added that he believes the pool of candidates for the interim position would be relatively small.
“It has to be someone who understands the district, understands the community, is very familiar with the state rules and regulations, and has an established relationship with SED,” he said, referring to the state Education Department.
But the current board majority doesn’t believe that a sense of urgency should come at the expense of a careful evaluation process. They want to see an interim superintendent who can present a 100-day succession plan on how they will ensure a smooth transition to new leadership.
Those at last week’s meeting also complained that the incoming board appears interested in simply naming “people who make them feel good” without any comprehensive review of their qualifications.
“The community needs to be able to meet these people and see what they are about,” said Belton-Cottman. “It’s great to say what someone can do. However, contrary to popular belief, it’s not as easy as you might think it is to sit in a seat and take it over.”
Nevergold noted that an interim superintendent normally maintains the status quo. If the incoming board majority wants someone who will make major changes, she said, “what tools, what experience do they have that is so superior to the person who left, that they are going to be ‘the fixer’? ”
Finally, despite vocal objections by the current board minority, Nevergold said she will not entertain any votes on an interim superintendent until a departure date is finalized for Brown, who recently suffered the death of her sister.
“To begin a process while we still have a sitting superintendent who is in bereavement ... I think that is the ultimate disrespect,” Nevergold said. “I will not do it.”