In a show of discontent over the direction that the Buffalo Public Schools are headed, voters Tuesday elected Larry Quinn and Patti Bowers Pierce to the School Board, upsetting the majority that currently maintains control and paving the way for major changes in the district – including dismissal of the superintendent.
School Board President Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, who supports the superintendent, won the third seat by a slimmer margin.
With 97 percent of the precincts reporting, Quinn had 8,351 votes, suggesting that about half of the voters cast a ballot in his favor for one of the three five-year terms. Pierce followed with 7,197.
Both were supported by board member Carl P. Paladino, who has spent his year on the board highlighting deficiencies and trying to get rid of Superintendent Pamela C. Brown.
Nevergold won the third seat with 6,809.
Quinn deemed the election results a clear mandate from the community to reform the Buffalo schools, calling for members of the board to put their differences aside and focus on the core mission of teaching students.
“I think we’ve got to put division aside, but this is also a time to radically change how we educate kids,” Quinn said. “We’ve got to be inclusive, but we need a revolution here.”
“We need to put all this bad history behind us and really move forward with a plan,” he added.
Nevergold acknowledged that the leadership is likely to change on the board and in the district offices.
“If I am returned to the board, I will do my best to work collectively with everyone and looking at establishing an agenda of putting children first,” she said.
Looking forward to the new leadership on the board, Nevergold talked about transparency issues that have plagued the board.
“I look for them to exhibit the kind of behaviors they say the board did not exhibit,” she said of the two new board members.
The election – which attracted 58 percent more votes than the last at-large race – is likely just the beginning of what could be a tumultuous period for the Buffalo schools. Both those who were elected and those already sitting on the board seemed to acknowledge the divisiveness of the election campaign and the racial division on the board and in the community.
The board will have to pull together a transition plan for what seems like Brown’s inevitable dismissal.
“It’s not going to be as simple as removing the superintendent,” board member James M. Sampson said. “There are a whole bunch of feelings that need to be dealt with. There’s a lot of anger and discontent that needs to be addressed before you can move forward.”
Although the new board members will not take office until July 1, some current members are already having conversations about how to move forward after the election. That could include tapping a high-ranking administrator to serve as interim superintendent for several years while the board conducts a thorough search for someone to fill the job permanently.
Some board members expect the vote on Brown’s employment to happen immediately after the new board is installed. “It’s been the conversation this entire election,” said board member Jason M. McCarthy. “What we need right now is some radical change. We need decisions to be made and made quickly.”
The vote follows a year of tensions in the Buffalo schools, much of it centered on Brown and the decisions she has made during her nearly two-year tenure as superintendent. Brown has maintained a narrow margin of support on the board, which often stood divided along racial and gender lines.
That division was also seen at polls across the city Tuesday, with many voters saying Brown’s status was a key factor influencing their decision.
“There’s a lot of work to do, and a lot of in fighting,” said Dorian Clark, who voted at Kensington Prep School in the Lovejoy District. “The superintendent has only been here for two years, and we’re already talking about getting rid of her. It’s time to come together and start working with each other.”
‘We need this change’
Clark’s viewoint was a stark contrast to what many voters in South Buffalo expressed leaving the polls.
“They need to get rid of the superintendent,” said Tom Mattingly, who cast his ballot at St. Thomas Aquinas School in South Buffalo.
“We need this change on the board.”
The election serves as a turning point for the Buffalo schools – and their leadership.
And the transition will likely start with the School Board, which will have to select its officers and chart the course for the future.
“The first question’s going to be who fills the board leadership positions?” Sampson said. “One of the first questions the board has to ask is, what does the transition look like.”
Sampson and McCarthy said they foresee a lengthy transition period that will give the board time to mend relationships in the community and hopefully restore faith in the district.
The two board members – along with Quinn during his campaign – said that it is critical the board be deliberative moving forward, aiming to stabilize the district and its day-to-day operations before selecting a permanent superintendent.
That will likely involve appointing someone to serve as an interim superintendent for a prolonged period – possibly as long as two years – to keep the district running.
“If Dr. Brown is relieved of her duties, we need to figure out how to stabilize this.” Sampson said.
Both McCarthy and Sampson said it is not likely the board will move to replace Brown’s top level people.
Rather, board members are already identifying people in the district’s top ranks who have the certification and credentials to serve as interim. That includes budget director Barbara J. Smith and Will Keresztes, director of student support services.
Distinguished educator Judy Elliott, who was appointed by the state to work with the district, is another name being floated.
“Any one of these people would be very well-qualified to run the district,” McCarthy said. “We would be able to take as much time as we need.”
Board members have also been looking to other similarly sized districts that have gone through similar transitions for ideas on how to move forward. Those include Baltimore, Denver and Long Beach, Calif.
However, nearly two months remain before the new board takes over, and McCarthy said he is wary of last-minute resolutions Brown may try to pass on her way out.
Both he and Sampson said they hope the board can essentially come to a standstill putting off an key decisions until July 1.
“I would hope that no decisions would be made that would put any one in place long-term,” McCarthy said. “Usually that’s what happens with an outgoing administration. That would be my major concern.”
Although turnout in Buffalo School Board elections has historically been low – less than 10 percent of registered voters typically cast a ballot – indicators suggested this year’s race attracted more voters than usual.
In 2009, the last time city voters elected at-large members to the School Board, a total of 31,953 votes were cast. This year, with 97 percent of the precincts reporting, 50,301 votes were cast – an increase of more than 57 percent over the last at-large election.
In the last election, eight people were vying for three open seats, compared with the field of 13 this year.
John B. Licata won the most votes in 2009, with 5,247. This year, with 97 percent of the precincts reporting, the candidate with the most votes was Quinn with 8,351, more than 59 percent more than Licata got five years earlier.
At-large board member Florence D. Johnson did not seek re-election.
Democratic Elections Commissioner Dennis E. Ward said that Tuesday’s election was likely to set a record for turnout in a school board race, albeit a modest one.
“Turnout seemed to be elevated, but when you spread it out across the whole city, you’re not going to see huge numbers,” Ward said. About 2,300 absentee ballots still need to be counted.
Across the board, poll workers reported higher turnout than usual, following a contentious race that attracted support everywhere from churches and parent groups to high-profile business and community leaders, as well as state and local unions.
Unitarian Universalist Church on Elmwood Avenue in the Delaware District, which had the second highest number of voters last year, reported 675 voters as of 4:45 p.m., with more voters streaming in. That blows the doors off of last year’s voter turn out at that polling place of under 400.
Candidates Bernard A. Tolbert, Wendy S. Mistretta and Sergio R. Rodriguez had all camped out front with their signs by late afternoon.
Karen Williams Powell, 65, said she didn’t vote last year because it was hard to keep up with the politics, but she made it a point to vote this year.
“I’ve been following more,” she said.
By late afternoon, several precincts in South Buffalo – Paladino’s home turf – had already surpassed the turnout they saw during the last at large election in 2009.
“I see the kids and the kids are not getting their fair shake in all of this,” said Ann Skea, a substitute teacher who voted at St. Thomas Aquinas. “Let’s get to the real stuff. It’s about the kids, not the politics.”
Marie Schillo, who voted at University United Methodist Church in the University District, said she voted for Quinn, Pierce and Licata.
“I think we desperately need to have new leadership on the School Board, especially the superintendent” she said. “I guess mostly I’m concerned about Pamela Brown. We’re not accomplishing what the state is demanding of us.”
Despite efforts to increase turn out in the predominantly black neighborhoods on the East Side, where Brown tends to draw more support, voters appeared to show up in smaller numbers, something that inevitably shaped the results of the election.