Robert M. Bennett has helped hire three state education commissioners. He oversaw the toughening of high school graduation requirements and has watched two federal attempts at education reform sweep through the state’s schools.
But in his 19 years as one of the state’s top education leaders, it was not until December that he got a taste of just how raucous a public meeting can get.
“I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed this much interruption at a forum in my life,” Bennett told a crowd of emotional teachers and parents gathered in Jamestown last month to speak their minds on the state’s efforts to reform education.
At 73, an age when most of his colleagues are enjoying retirement, Bennett enters the final year of his fourth term on the state’s Board of Regents – including seven years as chancellor. And he is encountering what he describes as an “unprecedented” attention on public education. A potent mix of new learning standards, teacher evaluations and tougher state tests has unleashed a torrent of change in local classrooms.
At every step, Bennett has been involved.
He also has been intimately involved in the Buffalo city schools crisis, serving as a go-between for the often-fractious efforts to fix Buffalo’s schools.
So how did a former United Way president from the Town of Tonawanda come to have a hand in just about every major educational decision affecting the region?
The answer may be in the quiet, behind-the-scenes work that Bennett has done for years.
In a world of email and videoconferencing, Bennett regularly drops in for face-to-face meetings with the region’s power brokers, sometimes hand-delivering paper documents to back up his points.
Those who have worked with Bennett say his congenial manner and his experience as the head of the United Way for 15 years make him a natural connector between the region’s business, education and social service leaders.
But make no mistake, behind his good humor and personable manners, Bennett is not afraid to prod people in the direction he thinks they should go. And the message isn’t always welcome.
“He can be your best friend or your worst nightmare, depending on where you sit and how you view the world,” said Marlies Wesolowski, a former Buffalo School Board member who is executive director of the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Human Services Center of Western New York. “When I say your worst nightmare, it’s because he pushes people hard when it comes to getting them to focus on kids and what we do for kids.”
Panel seen as ‘out of touch’
For all of Bennett’s influence on public education in New York State, he is neither elected by voters nor paid, aside from expenses, for his work.
He was raised in Kenmore, graduated from Canisius High School and the University of Notre Dame and earned a master’s degree from the University at Buffalo.
He has lived in the same modest, 1½-story home on Millwood Avenue in the Town of Tonawanda that he and his wife, Audrey, moved into when their daughter was a baby.
They were married 48 years, when Audrey Bennett died in 2012 after a long illness. He has two children and four grandchildren.
One of 17 state regents, Bennett serves on a state board that has its roots in 1784. Its reach is far. The board sets state education polices for preschoolers to college students, awards contracts for hundreds of millions of dollars of education spending, hires the state education commissioner and, on one occasion, has taken over a local school district’s operations.
It was the Board of Regents that decided, in 2010, that New York State would overhaul what students learn in the classroom and adopt a new set of education standards known as the Common Core. That decision, coupled with a new state law that required teacher evaluations, has angered many during the last year as students have brought home new reading and math materials and taken new state tests designed to measure whether they are keeping pace.
Critics of the board see it as a group of hand-picked appointees who are largely out of touch with parents and students.
“The Board of Regents is nebulous,” said Buffalo Comptroller Mark Schroeder, who sought to abolish the Board of Regents when he was in the Assembly. “Nobody knows who they are. They’re accountable to nobody.”
Regents are appointed by the State Legislature, and because Democrats hold a majority, the choices for years have been seen as controlled by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
State Senate Republicans in some years, including the year Bennett was first appointed to the Board of Regents, have boycotted the vote in protest.
But former Assemblyman Sam Hoyt said the idea that Silver’s influence on the appointment process translates into control of the Board of Regents and the education commissioner doesn’t hold up. Last month, Silver and his Democratic colleagues sent a letter to Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., asking him to hold off on sharing student information with a private education group hired to help create a new statewide data system. The state Education Department has not changed course.
“If he’s dictating what’s happening in education and with the Board of Regents,” Hoyt said of Silver, “they certainly haven’t been terribly responsive to his directives.”
The regents, however, are finding there’s a growing clamor for them to respond to concerns about changes taking place in classrooms.
A compromise candidate
Bennett joined the Board of Regents in 1995 as a compromise candidate between divided Western New York Democrats. At the time, he was head of the Buffalo & Erie County United Way and had been a force in bringing a resource center to the Sweet Home Central School District to better connect social service agencies to the district’s families.
Bennett brought executives from the area’s human service agencies together with the school district in a way they had not done before, said Anne Nowak, coordinator for the Sweet Home Family Support Center.
“They wanted to get into schools,” Nowak said of the agencies, “but there was always kind of this territorial thing going on where they just couldn’t get into the schools. So they all jumped at the chance.”
It’s the kind of role Bennett has continued to play as he retired from the United Way and ascended to the state’s top education post.
A divided Board of Regents elected him chancellor in 2002 and he later was named chancellor emeritus when he stepped down from the role seven years later.
Bennett has closely aligned himself with the state education commissioner and has been a champion of state education reform efforts – including the most recent controversial attempts at making school standards more rigorous.
“Bob canvasses his region, the eight counties that he represents,” said Donald A. Ogilvie, district superintendent of Erie 1 BOCES. “He does that through superintendents. He does it through board members. He does it through his connections to higher ed and human services.”
Bennett said he meets monthly with Buffalo Public School Superintendent Pamela Brown, as well as other superintendents in the region. But his role with Buffalo’s schools has not been limited to conveying the state’s agenda to education leaders. He has also played a prominent role in Buffalo.
Behind the scenes
Bennett has worked behind the scenes with business leaders such as M&T Chairman Robert G. Wilmers and former Buffalo Niagara Partnership CEO Andrew Rudnick when they have been displeased with the direction Board of Education members have taken, said Wesolowski.
When the Buffalo Board of Education was divided over whether to buy out then-Superintendent James Harris’ contract in the late 1990s, it was Bennett who worked between divided board members and others, she said.
“For a while there, it was very ugly. There was a lot of hurt feelings on both sides, and sometimes you need to have somebody that can go between the two factions and can talk to them,” Wesolowski said.
Hoyt said Bennett has had a sense of impatience over the slow progress in some schools.
“He wants to reform education in a way that it could have an impact immediately, not another generation away,” Hoyt said. “So consensus-builder, yes, but with kind of a low tolerance for the status quo if the status quo isn’t working, and I think he would be the first to acknowledge when it comes to educating inner-city children, the status quo has not served them well.”
Bennett’s influence, however, is not welcomed by everyone. Some in Buffalo schools believe Bennett, King and the Board of Regents single out Buffalo’s failures with the aim of possibly taking over the school district. They have bristled over the state’s assignment of a “distinguished educator” to advise the district.
“They’re trying to micromanage Buffalo,” said Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore. “Let’s put it this way, there are districts that are not doing as well as Buffalo, but they’re not singling them out.”
Bennett called the idea that state officials are targeting Buffalo “false.”
The district has gotten millions of dollars to turn around schools and received hands-on technical advice from the state, he noted.
“If anything, John King has targeted Buffalo for more money, which they haven’t spent very well, by the way,” Bennett said. “He’s not picking on Buffalo. The distinguished educator is there to help, and she’s a very, very smart person, and they’d be well advised to listen to her. She’s done this in Los Angeles, and so I simply don’t agree. I like Buffalo getting attention, but I would just hope that they would do better.”
Common Core anger
It is Bennett’s unwavering support for the state’s efforts to implement the new Common Core standards and new state tests that has angered some parents in recent months.
Bennett, in December, sat with King through a forum in Jamestown, where speaker after speaker complained that the state has taken a flawed approach to implementing new learning standards, teacher evaluations and updated state tests.
At the end of the meeting, Bennett expressed frustration at the tone of the audience, which at times included shouting.
Deann Nelson, a grandmother and former tutor in Jamestown, said the education commissioner and Bennett appeared out of tune with the public at the meeting.
“Even when people were talking about their passionate concerns, King and Bennett did not really address these,” Nelson said. “They just stayed on script, on message.”
But the Board of Regents has since set up a subcommittee, including Bennett, to examine concerns raised at the forums.
One group of parents, including an active contingent from Western New York, has called for members of the Board of Regents who support the Regents reform agenda to be replaced when their terms end this spring. It’s an unusual request for a board whose members are typically re-appointed at the end of their five-year terms.
Bennett’s term is up in 2015, but he does not appear to be slowing down. In addition to his work as a regent, he teaches at Niagara University and Canisius College and sits on two philanthropic boards that have a hand in funding education initiatives – the John R. Oishei Foundation and the Statler Foundation.
And when a group of community leaders – including Oishei President Robert D. Gioia – sought to put together a buyout offer for Buffalo School Superintendent Pamela Brown late last year, Bennett was aware of the efforts.
It is a far cry from how others viewed the job of regent when he was first appointed in 1995.
“It won’t take much of your time,” Bennett recalled then Deputy Assembly Speaker Arthur O. Eve telling him.
“It’s up to you, really, as a regent, what you want to do locally,” Bennett said, “and I’ve always thought, well, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this.”