Buffalo’s school district is no comedy club, but there are laughs to be had.
Take a buttoned-down guy and dip him in chaos. Place an organizational man in a surrealistic landscape. Take a beacon of responsibility and immerse him in bureaucratic fog. Even absent a pie in the face and a pratfall, you can see the sitcom possibilities.
Buffalo’s schools are, of course, more grim- than grin-provoking. That’s what lured Jim Sampson, reformist School Board member. He aches to inject accountability into a broken bureaucracy. His efforts may inspire parents, while appealing to our inner absurdists.
Sampson spent his professional life basking in order. From the board of Buffalo’s premier business group, to CEO at a child-service agency, to a guiding hand on the county’s fiscal control board, the man thrives on accountability.
He joined Buffalo’s School Board two months ago. Jim, welcome to the chaos.
Sampson was swept onto the board with Carl Paladino on a reformist tide. Paladino gets the press, Sampson – who co-founded West Buffalo Charter School – co-sets the reform agenda. He is as radical as the board’s resident rattlesnake, minus the fangs and venom. I am not a big fan of Paladino’s personal-attack style. But he, Sampson and a potential reform-majority board will force-feed change to a calcified district – and may doom its oddly detached superintendent, Pamela Brown.
Old enough to collect Social Security, as mild-mannered as Clark Kent, partial to blue blazers and white shirts, Sampson looks more like a bank executive than an urban-school warrior. Appearances deceive. He aims to crack the district’s petrified, closed-door, anti-democratic culture. That involves everything from converting failing schools into national-model charters, to live-streaming board meetings to – egad – demanding the district treat kids and parents like house guests instead of gate-crashers.
“They’re hostile to the people they are accountable to,” Sampson told me Friday, at an Elmwood Village coffee house. “A culture of complacency developed over time.”
He has a prime view of a $700 million bureaucracy that denies documents to its governing board, hides information, delivers inches-thick documents hours before deadlines and resists turnaround plans for troubled schools lest it loosen its grip on an eroding empire. All in the name of supposedly serving the public.
“I’m not surprised by what I’ve seen,” Sampson told me. “Just the depth and breadth of it.”
If district officials were running a business, the doors would have closed years ago. Indeed, “customers” have long voted with their feet – fleeing the city, placing their kids in private schools, or embracing the new-millennium option of public charter schools. State Ed’s insistence on test-score accountability deepens the cracks in the district’s foundation.
“The system will either change,” Sampson said, “or it will collapse.”
Anybody running a poor urban district has a near-impossible task. Classrooms are stuffed with poor kids from broken families. Socioeconomics are tightly tied to school performance.
Even so, district officials are their own worst enemies. Given the challenges, they ought to embrace change. Instead, they codify inertia. Board meetings held in a too-small room with endless – and needless – escapes into “executive session” typify their infuriatingly condescending attitude toward the people they are paid to serve.
As Confucius never said: Those who resist change are fated to have it force-fed.
Sampson has arrived, spoon in hand.