Now that Superintendent Pamela Brown is on her way out, what happens next?
The current Board of Education is expected to convene a special meeting next week and to discuss who could temporarily step into the superintendent’s role as soon as Brown walks out the door.
Numerous board members have floated Chief Financial Officer Barbara J. Smith as a possible choice.
Meanwhile, the incoming board majority to be seated in July wants to begin hunting for an interim superintendent who would work for a year or two to “fix” and stabilize the district before hiring a more permanent, “rock star” leader.
Of course, whatever the incoming board members want may be subject to what the current board decides. If Brown leaves quickly, the current board majority would have the power to dictate the terms of an interim superintendent’s tenure.
All this will make for an interesting six weeks.
“There’s not a lot of time,” said board President Barbara Seals Nevergold, “and we really do need to have a full board discussion. I don’t think we can wait until July 1 to talk about the change that’s going to happen.”
The current board must be prepared to quickly name a temporary replacement for Brown if she resigns before July as part of a separation agreement. The only legal requirement for someone to serve as superintendent is that the person hold “school district leader” certification from the state.
That leaves a big pool of potential candidates because that certificate is already held by most members of the superintendent’s executive cabinet and plenty of central office administrators.
“We do need to have an interim person,” Nevergold said, “and we also need to have someone in place prior to Dr. Brown’s leaving so that we have some transition in leadership to make things as smooth as possible.”
Smith, the district’s chief finance officer and chief operating officer, has been suggested by multiple board members as a solid choice because she has the background to keep the district functioning on a day-to-day basis and is generally respected by all members of the board.
More importantly for members of the incoming majority, Smith would be a safe “place holder” for a few weeks or months because she has expressed no interest in serving as district superintendent on a permanent basis.
Smith would pose no threat to the new board’s plans to select a longer-term interim superintendent to move the district forward according to the new board’s vision.
Given the district’s poisonous political atmosphere and deep leadership divide, the thinking is that it would be hard to attract a top-flight permanent leader now. Members of the incoming majority say they are intent on hiring a longer-term interim leader, and they’d prefer that person be someone already very familiar with the district, its players and problems. They want someone who could stabilize the district, embrace the board’s education reform agenda, and pave the way for a longer-term successor.
“In my mind, I see someone who comes in for two years and rights the ship and builds the morale of the district,” said Board Member Jason McCarthy. “It would be nice to find somebody local who has history here, someone who has knowledge of the district.”
Incoming Board Member Larry Quinn said bringing in someone from the outside would be “a big mistake.”
“Obviously, all the members have to talk about it,” he said, “but we’ve got a lot of issues that can’t wait for an extended search. I don’t see how you can do that.”
Though board members said they are committed to no one in particular, some of the names currently floated for this interim post include Chief of Student Support Will Keresztes, Distinguished Educator Judy Elliott, and soon-to-be-retired Erie 1 BOCES Superintendent Donald Ogilvie. Some principals’ names have also been suggested.
Board Member Carl Paladino said it’s important that whoever gets the interim job understands that he or she would be limited to a one- or two-year contract.
“The idea of a long-term commitment, which is so foolish, doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing and getting the right person.”
There are no guarantees that the incoming board majority will see its leadership plans progress exactly as they have designed.
Whether they get what they want depends on two things: How soon the board is able to finalize a separation agreement with Brown, and to what extent the current board majority agrees with the plans the incoming majority is making.
If Brown does not leave the district prior to July, the new board would be free to move forward with its own plans.
But if Brown leaves before the end of June, the current board could select an acting or interim superintendent without regard for what the incoming majority wants.
The News reached out to many members of the current and incoming board for this story. Aside from Nevergold, no member of the current board majority returned calls seeking comment.
Nevergold offered no insights as to what the current board might entertain for the short term. However, she did say that in regard to selecting a long-term superintendent, “that conversation should be appropriately done with the new board.”
That conversation may be a couple years off. Incoming majority members say there’s no point even attempting to attract a strong, permanent superintendent until the district can fix immediate problems and recover its reputation.
Board Member James Sampson said the board has placed an unfair burden on past superintendents by expecting them to have all the answers and “lead us out of the wilderness.”
This time around, he said, the board needs to spend the next year or two laying out a road map for creation of high-performing schools, resolving union contracts and fixing broken relationships with parents, the community and the state.
Once that work is done, the district could conduct a broader search for a permanent superintendent, he said, “a rock star who would come to Buffalo because it’s such a great place now.”