Buffalo Schools Superintendent Pamela C. Brown is no stranger to controversy, but growing frustration even among her supporters may have recast her future with the Buffalo school district.
It’s a story line that seems to keep rewriting itself, but revelations and controversies in recent weeks come at a tipping point for Brown and the district she is leading.
Critical School Board elections are just weeks away, and some doubts appear to be rising among Brown supporters in the community, a factor that could influence voters. And the tone several of her supporters on the School Board are taking in light of recent events suggests their faith in the superintendent also has been shaken.
“If you told me two months ago you would have dozens of black parents show up at a board meeting cheering for Carl Paladino, I would have said you were nuts,” said community member Dwayne Kelly, referring to one of Brown’s biggest critics on the board.
The latest turmoil started with Brown’s surprise hiring of a consultant whose contract the board had previously terminated, and was almost immediately followed by revelations two other top-ranking administrators lack the proper state certification.
“It was disappointing,” School Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold said. “It was a surprise to me that the credentials were not in place.”
At the same time, Brown drastically changed course on plans to overhaul several low-performing schools, prompting criticism that she rushed the proposals and alienated key partners in the process.
Tensions culminated last week in an emotional board meeting littered with arguments and outbursts that had the audience calling for order.
Some of Brown’s usual supporters on the board questioned the school turnaround proposals she brought before them, and two of her allies ultimately rejected one of them.
Others, who usually come to her defense, remained unusually quiet at Wednesday’s meeting.
And later Nevergold said she was disappointed Brown led her to believe the two administrators – Yamilette Williams and Faith Morrison Alexander – were certified before the board approved their contracts. Board members spent an hour in private executive session discussing the two women’s appointments.
“When you have voices like that speaking up, you may see change among the board members,” said board member James Sampson, who has not been a Brown supporter.
Much of the debate at the public portion of Wednesday’s board meeting centered on plans to turn around some of the district’s most struggling schools, plans that were sent to the board just days before they needed to be submitted to the state for approval.
The plans affect three schools – Bennett High School, Martin Luther King Multicultural Institute and Harvey Austin School. The district originally planned to close the three schools and reopen them either in partnership with or under the management of an outside agency, such as what is called an educational partnership organization or one that handles charter school conversions.
But earlier this month, Brown changed course, opting instead to phase out the schools and replace them with new programs that focus on careers in the sciences.
Brown put those new plans on the agenda for the board’s March 12 meeting – the same day they were due to the state. That vote was then delayed because of bad weather.
When they did have a chance to weigh in Wednesday, board members expressed concerns about how the plans were developed and asked for more time to review them.
But Brown told board members that, if they did not approve the plans that night, the state would take action – possibly closing the schools altogether.
“Essentially, we were being given an ultimatum,” Sampson said. “This seems to be a pattern where the board is asked to approve plans the district is already advancing. We’re being put in a very difficult position where we can’t lead or govern.”
Some board members alleged the way Brown went about developing the plans alienated key partner M&T Bank, which works with Bennett through the Promise Neighborhood project and has provided millions of dollars of support for Buffalo public school programs over the years. They said that bank officials felt cut out when Brown issued the request for proposals to find a new partner to work with the school – without ever consulting them.
“They were stunned they were not included,” said board member Jason McCarthy, who attended a meeting with Brown and bank officials.
An M&T Bank spokesperson said the bank continues to look for ways to work with Bennett.
In addition, other board members, including some of Brown’s supporters, questioned last week the notice Brown gave parents at the former Pinnacle Charter School that they were to merge with Harvey Austin School. When the state closed Pinnacle in August, the district pledged to operate the school intact.
During the meeting, Paladino criticized the district and Brown for their handling of the situation and their communication with parents, noting the promise of keeping the school intact.
At that point, parents – all of them African-American – cheered Paladino.
Dozens of parents from that school attended Wednesday’s meeting, some of them speaking out about the short notice Brown gave them for the new proposed merger. Brown had notified them of the merger on Monday.
Ultimately, the final vote on the school plans deviated from the board’s usual 5-4 split along racial and gender lines. On Wednesday, those lines were blurred.
Theresa Harris-Tigg and Nevergold, traditional Brown supporters, rejected Brown’s plan to merge Pinnacle with Harvey Austin, objecting to the short notice given parents. Voting with them on that rejection were McCarthy, Paladino and Sampson, who have been critical of Brown.
“Even Nevergold was saying she wasn’t happy those plans weren’t completed,” board member Jason McCarthy said of the board president.
John Licata, a Brown critic, joined with Brown supporters Florence Johnson and Sharon Belton-Cottman to vote in favor of all the school plans the superintendent proposed.
McCarthy, Paladino and Sampson voted to reject all three plans; Mary Ruth Kapsiak was not at the meeting.
“I think what you saw in that meeting was more of them saying ‘Hey wait a minute,’ ” Sampson said. “Their hesitancy and their questioning suggests they were concerned with what was happening.”
“Where the school ends up is important to parents, they need to be part of that conversation,” Harris-Tigg said of the Pinnacle situation. “That did not happen.”
“I think when parents feel that they have not been a part of the process and a decision has been made without their voice, that could have an impact,” she added. “That does speak to trust. We have to do a better job. We have to do a better job because we’re talking about kids’ lives.”