Prominent members of Buffalo’s business community have offered Pamela C. Brown a half-million-dollar package to resign as city school superintendent – an offer she does not appear likely to take.
Several sources say that Robert D. Gioia, president of the Oishei Foundation, has been coordinating the effort to raise money from deep-pocketed community members who are unhappy with Brown’s performance.
Those critics say Brown fails to communicate effectively, sometimes blindsiding key players with decisions such as closing schools or adding dozens of staff to the payroll without first finding the money to do so. Under her leadership, the state has criticized the lack of academic progress at several schools and rejected several versions of a plan to accommodate students wanting to transfer out of the lowest-performing schools.
In addition, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has called for strict penalties for schools and districts that fail to show improvement, echoing the voices of state education leaders who for years have pushed for the ability to take over struggling districts.
“Buffalo has been identified by nearly every indicator,” said Robert Bennett, chancellor emeritus to the New York State Board of Regents, which governs the state’s school systems. “The evidence is quite overwhelming.”
Bennett was among seven sources who are aware that negotiations have taken place, and at least three said that Mayor Byron W. Brown has been involved in the process, serving as a liaison between the superintendent and business leaders in the negotiations.
“The mayor has many of the same concerns and frustrations as parents do when it comes to our schools,” said the mayor’s spokesman, Michael J. DeGeorge. “He and Superintendent Brown talk on a regular basis on a variety of topics and those conversations will remain private.”
Some of the sources also were among those who had been approached for funding for the buyout.
The superintendent, however, maintains that she has no intention of leaving her position.
In response to a request for an interview, she issued a statement, highlighting her successes since becoming superintendent in July 2012. Among those accomplishments, she said, were a decrease in short-term suspensions and chronic absenteeism and an increase in student enrollment. Brown also stated that the graduation rate has increased, along with the percentage of students passing state English and math exams in the 11th grade.
“Many achievements that we have already enjoyed as a district are noted and recorded as irrefutable proof that we are on the right track,” Brown said in the statement. “If anyone would threaten the continuation of this kind of progress with the discussion of a buyout or any other means of undermining the positive change that is underway, his/her motive should be questioned.”
Brown earns $217,500 a year, and her contract runs through July 2015.
School Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold, who said that she had been approached several months ago and informed of an outside effort to buy out the superintendent, reaffirmed Brown’s intention to stay.
“The superintendent and I certainly talk,” Nevergold said. “I know she has no plans to leave the district.”
The proposed buyout, which is believed to be on the table for a limited time, is for $500,000. Part of that money would come from the school district, as her contract stipulates that she receive a year’s salary if dismissed without cause with more than a year left on her contract. The School Board would need to approve that payment.
The rest of the package would come from several private donors, according to several sources who spoke to The News. And that money would be raised by Robert G. Wilmers, the CEO of M&T Bank, and Gioia, who heads the Oishei Foundation, which has a history of financing educational initiatives in Buffalo. Wilmers, through a spokesman, would neither confirm nor deny his involvement in the buyout effort.
Gioia has been critical of the district’s leadership and said many others in the community share his frustration with Brown and progress in the city schools. He did not directly confirm his role in the effort to entice Brown to leave. But he also did not deny it.
“Some people would look to any and all options available in order to change,” he said. “The level of frustration is getting so high people are willing to do anything they can.”
The proposed buyout follows months of tension surrounding the Buffalo schools and Brown’s leadership.
In September, School Board member Carl Paladino led an effort to oust Brown. But his resolution to terminate Brown was defeated 5-4.
Since then, frustration has continued to grow among influential partners, such as the Oishei Foundation, Say Yes Buffalo and M&T Bank, a key partner in the city’s Promise Neighborhood project, which aims to bring together various public and private community agencies to better serve the area’s residents and students.
The leadership of Say Yes recently criticized the superintendent for her failure to come up with $14 million to pay for an after-school program it developed with the support of community organizations and parents. Its executive director, David Rust, said he was under the impression the district would come up with the money, although Brown said in a statement last week that the district has been clear with the organization about its budget constraints.
And Gioia says that his foundation consistently hits roadblocks when attempting to work with the district on various programs.
Meanwhile, high-level state officials are pushing for the power to take over failing school districts. State education officials have been lobbying for several years for a law that would give them the authority to take over districts that struggle academically or financially. Although that legislation has had little traction, Cuomo is expected to make school reform a top priority in his State of the State address Jan. 8.
In August, Cuomo went so far as to call for a “death penalty” for low-performing schools and districts.
“I don’t want Albany to sit there and tell communities how to run their schools, but I do feel comfortable sitting in Albany saying failing schools is not an option,” he said during a news conference in Lockport at the time. “We’re not going to allow another generation of children to be failed by a failing bureaucracy, especially when, in this state, we spend more money than any other state to educate a child, period. There is no excuse for failure.”
Locally, Paladino has vowed to spend money in the May election to back candidates who support his effort to oust Brown. Some other board members agree with him.
“The more time she seems to take, the worse it’s going to get,” North District board member Jason McCarthy said of Brown. “It’s a frustrating time. I feel like we have to wait until May to move forward.”
But not all board members agree with Paladino and McCarthy.
“It’s been a witch hunt since she came on the board,” said board member Sharon Belton-Cottman, a Brown supporter. “Whatever people are doing outside of the board, that’s their business.
“At the end of the day, we’ll stay focused on turning around this district.”
The buyout offer
Some in the business community say the city can not wait for state intervention or the May elections for a change in leadership.
Negotiations for a buyout started shortly after that failed vote to oust Brown in September, according to Paladino.
He said an intermediary approached him about the discussions. Although wealthy and one of Brown’s main critics, Paladino said he would not contribute.
“He knew I wasn’t going to give them anything,” Paladino said. “I don’t think we should pay her a nickel. This city doesn’t owe her anything.”
But Gioia, Wilmers and other business leaders are hoping to entice Brown to leave, according to the sources who talked to The News.
Like Gioia, Wilmers – through a spokesman – neither confirmed nor denied that he was involved.
“I can’t verify the story you’re reporting on, but at M&T we remain concerned about the children of our city, and we will continue to do what we can to help,” M&T spokesman C. Michael Zabel said in an email.
Other sources said Wilmers was one of the key funders of the effort.
Gioia also acknowledged that he has been involved in conversations about who might replace Brown should she leave as superintendent.
Bennett, an influential force both locally and at the state level, confirmed that an offer had been made.
“I don’t know if I can reference any names, but I do know that on more than one occasion, an offer to leave has been made,” Bennett said. “The School Board knows about it, the mayor knows about it. The superintendent certainly knows about it.”
Along with being a member of the state Board of Regents, Bennett serves on the board of directors of the Oishei Foundation.
Most School Board members, however, said they knew nothing about the offer from the private sector, and the majority who back her echoed that support when they learned of a potential buyout.
“We have a superintendent, and we have continued to work to get our students where we need to be,” said board member Theresa Harris-Tigg. “That’s where my focus is and that’s where I hope other people’s focus is. This other stuff is just distraction.”
Ultimately, the power to terminate the superintendent’s contract lies with the board, and Brown continues to have the support of a slim majority.
“I’ve got to tell you, with the leadership and the board, everyone should be ashamed of themselves,” Gioia said. “They are the only nine people in this community who can effect change.”
“The only authority with regard to whether she stays or goes is the elected School Board,” Bennett agreed. “And herself.”