In a city whose top elected officials haven’t exactly been models of progressiveness, the idea of turning Buffalo’s schools over to the mayor – a concept finally embraced by Byron Brown – invites predictable skepticism.
But whatever else one can say about the last three mayors, there is no debating that they provided one quality the school system has lacked: stability.
The late Jimmy Griffin was re-elected three times, serving a total of 16 years before opting out in 1993. He was succeeded by Tony Masiello, who served 12 years before bowing out in 2005. Brown, his successor, has just begun his third term, on the way to matching Masiello’s 12 years.
For better or worse, they’ve provided stability in the top office in City Hall.
Contrast that with the turnover in the school superintendent’s chair as School Board majorities come and go, ushering in and out chief executives with them. James Harris lasted less than four years before being pushed out in early 2000. Successor Marion Canedo retired after 4½ years, replaced by interim Superintendent Yvonne Hargrave for a year before she gave way to James Williams, who lasted a relative eternity – six years – before resigning as the board prepared to fire him in 2011. Interim Superintendent Amber Dixon took over before current chief Pamela Brown was hired in June 2012 – and immediately was being pushed toward the door.
That’s six school chiefs – each with his or her own priorities and leadership style – serving an average of less than three years each.
In his yearlong visit to see how Union City, N.J., schools – a poor, heavily Latino district – went from among the worst in the state to meeting statewide averages, education expert David Kirp attributed part of the turnaround to the fact that Union City let its mayor (who’s also a state legislator) appoint the School Board. In his book “Improbable Scholars,” Kirp contrasts the stability that Union City achieved with what happens elsewhere:
“Across the country, school board elections sweep into office insurgents who, whether out of pedagogical differences, pique, or personal ambition, are after the superintendent’s scalp. The average tenure of an urban school chief is less than three years, This churning is a recipe for drift.”
He wasn’t talking specifically about Buffalo, but he could have been. The “churning” here could easily continue come May, when at-large School Board elections could bring a new majority and, with it, another new superintendent.
That person, in Kirp’s words, would be constantly counting votes and looking over his or her shoulder until the next board election instead of having the security to plan for the long term.
Granted, the success of mayoral control depends on who is mayor. But the change could force Buffalo mayors to up their game by giving voters an easily discernible measuring stick: student performance.
Unlike job creation or economic development, which can depend on the national economy, school improvement is within local hands, as Union City showed. Voters citywide would have something concrete for which they could hold one person – the mayor – directly accountable.
Given the recent history of city schools, no one can argue that the current system works. In a town that lives and dies with its pro teams, a sports adage says it all: Change a losing game.