We agree with those calling on Buffalo’s Common Council to explore a city takeover of the school district. Given the district’s long-term problems and the city’s financial obligation to the district, it is important to look into this possibility.
But exploration, at least for the moment, is as far as the Council should go. It should investigate the benefits and risks of the city taking a larger role in the district, but it should do so recognizing that positive things seem to be happening in the district, and more may soon occur. City leaders should be wary of drastic changes that could as easily set the district back as push it forward.
Mayoral control has been discussed as a possible solution to the school district’s ongoing problems. After years of distancing himself from the issue, Mayor Byron W. Brown, himself, raised the possibility earlier this year. In New York City, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg took control of the school district, with some benefits.
An expanded city role or even an outright takeover might help here, as well, but with some signs of progress reported and others possibly in the offing, this isn’t the time to jump. It’s the time to prepare.
Most obviously, the district’s graduation rate jumped a startling 8 percentage points between 2012 and 2013, according to new, though unaudited, state statistics. Whether that was the result of the efforts of former Superintendent Pamela C. Brown or the efforts of Say Yes to Education, which include the guarantee of a free college education for graduates, or some combination of factors, the plain fact is that something good seems to have happened in the district.
Thus, the question: Would city control of the district disrupt whatever forces are responsible for that hopeful change? We don’t know, but it’s better to find out first.
In addition, the newly elected members of the Buffalo School Board offer the strong possibility of better leadership, as does the change in superintendent. On July 1, two new board members will take their seats – Larry Quinn, who comes with a stockpile of ideas for improving the performance of city schools, and Patti Bowers Pierce, who is also passionate about the schools. Their ideas, together with those of the board’s other reformers, also make this a moment to see what happens before taking drastic action.
None of which is to say that some form of city control may not be called for. That is why it would be wise for the Common Council and mayor to explore those issues now, carefully and openly. That way, if the graduation rate doesn’t continue to climb – or worse, if it regresses – or if the district’s new leadership doesn’t make the difference that many believe it will, the city will have a clear idea of the costs and benefits of city control and whether, in the end, that significant change is worth making.
And in that evaluation effort, here is a good starting place: The city already has a significant financial stake in the district, providing about $70 million, or 9 percent, of the district’s annual budget. For that kind of money, city taxpayers deserve some kind of seat at what is a very expensive and important table.