If the folks trying to bribe Pamela Brown into quitting as Buffalo school superintendent were smart, they would have just waited.
A few more months would have been a small price to pay – a price that now may be paid, anyway – to avoid the mistrust and cynicism that bubbles up any time Buffalo’s white power elite goes after an African-American leader.
It takes no prodding for people to bring up former Buffalo State College President F.C. Richardson or former Superintendent James Harris – other black leaders run out of Buffalo – whenever a black comes under fire. It’s in that context that many will view the effort to oust Brown orchestrated by our so-called movers and shakers.
It’s dumbfounding that they would be so naive as to how it would be seen in a city in which race, at least for blacks, is always just below the surface.
“This is how Buffalo has always been and why it has an image as a racist city,” said Charley H. Fisher III, BUILD of Buffalo president.
But there’s also another side to the racial coin: Most of the kids being failed by the troubled school system are black.
Oishei Foundation President Robert Gioia, a buyout leader, said the district’s troubles and the need for change were the driving factors. Community reaction was not considered.
“This is not about black or white, it’s about 25,000 kids. It’s that simple,” he said.
But it’s never that simple here – and especially not when this effort tracks with that of School Board member Carl Paladino’s attacks on Brown and black female board members as a “sisterhood.” His racist vitriol taints any other effort to force change.
As for Brown, two things seem clear: The knives were out for her before she even unpacked, making it impossible for some to credit her for improvements in attendance, graduation rates and other measures that – if verified by the state – would bring hosannas for any other superintendent.
The other is that she has been her own worst enemy, failing to grasp that leadership is more than just doing office work. It’s also about cultivating allies, rallying the public, responding to the media, involving parents and working with state officials instead of pretending you don’t know where their criticisms are coming from. In those parts of the job, she has been abysmal.
Those dual realities give both sides ammunition for the type of fight Buffalo doesn’t need. But if those pushing her ouster have to be mindful of the racial context, blacks have to get over the suspicion that any African-American – from parent leaders to a state education commissioner – who doesn’t reflexively support a leader like Brown is automatically a sellout. The stakes for kids, all kids, are too high.
All of which points to the School Board elections in May to determine the balance of power and Brown’s fate. That’s where her future should be decided, not in swanky backrooms.
After proving her commitment by rejecting the $500,000 buyout, Brown has, at most, four months to prove her ability. In the meantime, Buffalo’s challenge is to keep the campaign from devolving into an electoral race war.
That will be hard, given what has transpired, but Gioia sets a promising tone looking forward.
“Nothing would please us more than that we were wrong,” he said, “because this is about kids.”
That’s really hard to remember in Buffalo.