The arrival of Buffalo’s new interim superintendent, Donald A. Ogilvie, was in some ways about as contentious as anyone would have expected in this troubled school district – but for one thing: an unexpected and welcome display of openness. The School Board should continue that practice.
Ogilvie, the recently retired superintendent of Erie 1 BOCES, was appointed in a 5-0 vote by the nine-member board. Four members, all supporters of the just-departed superintendent, Pamela C. Brown, abstained, although not without making their displeasure known. That was to be expected, and given what is known about Ogilvie, so was his affirmative response: open, respectful and focused on results. We hope all School Board members will return the favor.
The board was about to move into a closed session to discuss the plan to hire Ogilvie, which had angered the board’s four-member bloc. Even though the discussion about the process quickly became heated, one of the new members at large, Larry Quinn, nonetheless moved to avoid the closed session and keep the discussion public. To the board’s credit, that’s what it did.
The scene wasn’t pretty, but no one ever said democracy was. Barbara Seals Nevergold, the previous board president, was blunt. Speaking to Ogilvie, who asked to address the board, she said “You’re starting off, you understand, with a minus for credibility.” But she was also apparently willing to give Ogilvie the chance to prove himself, saying, “That’s going to need some real work and some real effort.” If there was no welcome mat, there was also no boiling oil poured from above.
For his part, Ogilvie struck just the right tone, promising to meet with all members of the board, committing to speak with parents and community members and pledging better communication, including consultation with board members well before presenting them with resolutions to vote on. He even held a brief, impromptu press conference afterward. All are areas in which Brown fell short, sometimes severely.
All in all, it was probably as good a start as could have been expected, given the strained relations on the board. But for whatever it was worth, the four members angered by the process didn’t vote “no,” but merely abstained. The majority, after some debating with the four members, stopped arguing and let the others speak. Nevergold left a door open for Ogilvie, who was gracious and deferential. It wasn’t a celebration, but it could have been worse.
Here’s what should happen going forward. The board’s five-member majority should commit to working openly with the four members in opposition, who represent important parts of the community. Those board members, meanwhile, need to put their sore feelings aside. They won’t help and, in any case, those members created plenty of sore feelings during their time at the top. It’s time to let it go, and if they focus on the future, that shouldn’t be hard.
Ogilvie doesn’t want the job permanently. In two or three years, there will be another superintendent, and there will be many opportunities to influence that process.
For now, the task for all board members who care about their mission must be to commit to doing all they can to ensure that Ogilvie succeeds in a task that could hardly be more urgent.