It was a farce almost from the start, so there was no reason to think it wouldn’t end as a farce, too. The buyout deal given to now former Buffalo School Superintendent Pamela C. Brown is preposterous on its face. But, as incoming Board President James Sampson noted, it was unavoidable given the continuing support of Brown’s elected apologists and, in the end, worth swallowing for the necessary benefit of putting this costly episode behind.
Two weeks before the new School Board takes over, the existing board gave Brown a big financial kiss, sending her out the door with more than she’d have received had the board simply fired her. She is walking away with a full year’s salary – $217,500 – a $10,000 bonus and an additional – and laughable – $2,000 consulting fee for taking phone calls from the district, but only through Aug. 16.
In addition, and in keeping with state law, she will receive another $9,167 for unused vacation time. And, finally – and most incredibly – she walks away with five glowing letters of recommendation, signed by Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold and apparently written by Brown, herself. The self-penned letters attest to Brown’s “character, skills and accomplishments.”
Not bad for a superintendent who misled board members, didn’t communicate with the public, hired unqualified managers, couldn’t produce state documents that met basic standards, rejected valuable outside assistance and otherwise failed to do the things that any superintendent would be expected to do, let alone one charged with turning around a failing urban school district.
Board members Carl Paladino and Jason McCarthy cast the only “no” votes, protesting a “fiscally irresponsible” decision (McCarthy) that was “shoved down our throats by the majority” (Paladino). They are right on both counts, though it would be surprising if they didn’t expect it. After all, Brown and the outgoing board majority did something very similar with the surprise vote to rehire Mary Guinn as deputy superintendent, four months after Brown told the board she had no plans to bring her back. To Nevergold, that apparently qualifies as “character.”
Nevertheless, despite it all, Sampson is correct that it is better to have the farce out of the way now rather than later. “It would have dragged on,” he said, “and we couldn’t have spent our time focusing on what was going on in the schools and the transition. I thought it was in the best interests of the schools to approve this and move forward.”
Not only that, but there was no blocking it, anyway, since Brown’s enablers on the School Board still own a majority and had determined to send the failed queen sailing away in royal style. Better to choke it down and get busy on planning for what comes next.
And that is what the board did, beginning with the plausible hiring of Will Keresztes as what amounts to the district’s temporary interim superintendent. Though not the first choice of either of the board’s factions, the chief of student support services represented an easy compromise and represents a credible choice. The expectation is that he will serve until the district hires a longer-term interim superintendent who could serve for a year or more as the board seeks a permanent successor to Brown.
Meanwhile, the board has developed a list of qualities it wants in its interim superintendent, but evidently plans to begin interviews before the new board is seated on July 1. It should resist that temptation – which is basically to cause mischief – or find a way to let the incoming board members play a role. If neither of those happens, candidates for the job should understand that the new board will likely summon them for a second interview and that the first one was just for fun.
In hindsight, the School Board made an unwise choice in hiring Brown two years ago and now finds itself having to go over the same ground again. It needs to approach this task seriously, understanding that this isn’t about power plays on the School Board or racial or gender politics, but about finding the leader who best embodies the qualities needed to ensure that Buffalo’s students and taxpayers are no longer cheated out of the functioning educational system to which they are entitled.