By Geoff Schutte
On Tuesday, when voters take to the polls to elect three new at-large Buffalo School Board members, they will be participating in a rather unheralded anniversary: 40 years ago this May, Buffalo residents voted for their first elected School Board. While no one will doubt that our city, our schools and the district’s board members have changed, too many unfortunate parallels exist between then and now.
Voter turnout remains embarrassingly low, board tensions continue to exacerbate our worst divisions and cries of dysfunction and disrespect still permeate basic agenda items. Hope, so readily felt in our downtown of late, needs to find its way into our beleaguered, but all-essential, school system. It is incumbent upon us to find members who can help deliver this change.
The board, then as now, often acts out the tensions and concerns of our community: our hopes and our cynicisms; our divisions of race and economics; our collective beliefs in what we can and cannot be.
City leaders warned in 1974 that an elected School Board would only exacerbate racial tensions. Nathan Goldfarb, a civil rights leader of the time, warned that such a board threatened to “aggravate the already acute racial and ethnic tensions in Buffalo.” One can still hear echoes of this at School Board meetings today.
Whether an elected School Board remains the most viable leadership structure to run such an important system is a serious public conversation that needs to be had. Previous to the elections of 1974, the board consisted of mayoral appointees.
Such a structure, in place in some large urban areas, can place education and financial experts in positions of leadership and oversight, something our elected board often lacks. Yet these structures can often become dividing rods, further disenfranchising voters and forcing an added layer of politics into the mayor’s office. Such changes need to be carefully considered as we seek solutions for our schools.
But like all fixes in our democracy, the best reforms, and the more appropriate for our city, must ultimately come from the voters, and from the quality of citizens and leaders we choose to elect. As long as candidate forums remain sparsely attended and election turnout underwhelming, our public education system will remain a sad paragon of dysfunction and a hindrance to our city’s revitalization.
This election has attracted a deep pool of candidates. What it now needs is a deep pool of informed voters, who can choose serious leaders to guide our schools. Forty years ago, voters were given the opportunity to reshape how business was done in our schools; on Tuesday, we have the responsibility to demand a school system worthy of this great city.
Geoff Schutte is a teacher at Tapestry High School and the co-founder of Educators for a Better Buffalo.