Wanted: Miracle worker.
Must have demonstrated ability to turn around struggling, high-poverty urban schools. Experience bringing together a divided board is a plus. Candidates must possess a sense of humor, endless patience, thick skin and a snow shovel.
Now that the results of Buffalo’s school board election point to Superintendent Pamela C. Brown’s imminent dismissal, local educators and advocates already are coming up with their wish lists for the district’s next leader.
But some worry that as the new board leadership moves forward with the next chapter for the Buffalo schools, the politics and divisiveness that marked the board over the past year will deter qualified candidates from applying.
Those who conduct superintendent searches across New York State say that it will be critical for the new board to put aside differences and prepare a cohesive agenda that reflects the community’s needs.
Before searching for a new superintendent, board members must take their time to stabilize the district, mend relationships with community stakeholders and set priorities, these sources said. Not until those tasks are performed will it be time to look for someone who can execute the agenda.
“Hopefully, the board is going to understand if they want to recruit and maintain a quality education leader they’re going to have to cooperate and work together,” said Howard Smith, a former Williamsville superintendent who is now a consultant with School Leadership, LLC.
“Quality candidates will do their homework,” he added. “The fact that they are as fractured as they are – unless there’s a real indication that they’re going to work together – is going to limit the applicant pool.”
But that may be easier said than done, following a contentious year and a contentious election campaign that upset the board’s majority.
If the days following the election are any indication, there is a long way to go to mend the division between them. Following the election Tuesday, one board member filed a lawsuit against another and the board spent a seven-and-a-half hour meeting bickering.
By most standards, Buffalo should be an attractive prospect for ambitious rising stars looking to make their mark in urban education.
It’s the state’s largest school district outside of New York City, and the district receives a fair amount of community support through organizations like the Promise Neighborhood and Say Yes Scholarship programs.
Yet the most recent efforts to hire top-level administrators have been dogged by lackluster interest.
“Right now, your present superintendent has people who are with her and those who are against her,” said Vince Coppola, a search consultant with Western New York Educational Service Council. “That’s not a very good position to be in.”
Those who conducted the search for a deputy superintendent in Buffalo said candidates were reluctant to apply because of the political situation, and what some saw as a void in leadership.
Even when the board last looked nationally for a superintendent and ended up with Brown, its options were limited.
It’s no secret among education insiders that some highly sought after candidates are reluctant to come here because of politics many see as a potential career killer.
Several of those insiders interviewed for this story did not want to be named in this article, citing either politics, existing relationships with the district or an expectation they will be part of the process moving forward.
Still, all expressed the same sentiment: Few top people would be willing to take the job today, but if the board maximizes its time in the next year stabilizing the district and setting clear goals, Buffalo could become a very appealing place, even for some noteworthy national players.
Smith, whose firm has conducted more than 100 superintendent searches, said he meets with boards up front to talk about their feelings and divisions in order to brainstorm solutions for how to move forward. They also come up with a list of qualifications that will appease everyone and reflect the community’s wishes.
For boards like Buffalo’s, that requires a major culture shift, with both sides making concessions to develop an agenda that best serves students.
“I know superintendents who wouldn’t take jobs unless they have a unanimous board,” Smith said. “If you’re a superintendent coming in and you’re just being hired and you can’t get a unanimous vote, what message does that send about what’s going to happen down the road?”
Setting an agenda
Board members who are part of the new majority acknowledge the challenge they may face recruiting. They say that the groundwork laid in the next year will be critical to setting the direction of the district.
Part of that will likely mean the board taking a more pro-active role setting the agenda of the district, rather than relying on what has become a revolving door of superintendents. The Council of Great City Schools reports that the average tenure of superintendents in urban school districts is less than four years.
Although the board is the ultimate authority governing schools, boards here and elsewhere tend to take direction from the superintendents they hire – not the other way around.
“I would advocate for a transition period that is not just placeholder,” said board member James Sampson. “As a board, we need to be able to say ‘We would like to see a district that looks like this.’ We need to set the direction.”
And search consultants say that is a good strategy for recruiting superintendents. If the board has set clear goals for initiatives and programs, it can seek candidates capable of implementing them.
Members of the new majority already have given some indication of what their goals will be: advocating for a fairly aggressive reform agenda that includes supporting charter schools, cultivating leadership, creating options for families and holding schools more accountable for their performance.
The new majority also has been supportive of working with the state Education Department to more efficiently roll out the Common Core learning standards.
“For once, we see the reform agenda have a stronger voice on the board,” said board member Jason McCarthy. “There has never been a progressive strategy in this district.”