Certain words get trotted out after every election in which there are a few winners, lots of losers and a clearance rack full of well-worn campaign issues. They are nice words such as “inclusiveness” and “common ground.”
Within minutes of Tuesday night’s election results making it clear that Larry Quinn would be joining the Buffalo Board of Education, he used the words “inclusive” and “revolution” in the same sentence. Fellow winner and ally Patti Bowers Pierce, meanwhile, called herself “a bridge builder.”
One day later, outside observers and board members themselves expressed hope that the reconfigured nine-member board will be more civil, respectful and cooperative.
But no one is blind to the fact that deep divisions will still confront the new board when it takes office July 1.
Aside from terminating the employment of Superintendent Pamela C. Brown, the new board majority is expected to embrace pro-charter school agendas that conflict with the existing board majority’s philosophy of promoting traditional public schools and focusing on making struggling schools better.
Plenty of groups are lining up on both sides of that divide.
Amy H. Friedman, president of Buffalo ReformED, said she expects new board member Quinn, for one, to embrace the rapid movement of students out of failing schools and into charters and other schools in good standing.
“He’s good at solving complex problems, breaking them down and working them out,” she said.
That, coupled with a drive for new district leadership and strong principals, will mark the new board’s overriding agenda, Friedman said.
Lawrence L. Scott, co-chairman of the Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization formed to foster a more positive message of school successes, said he is concerned that the new majority will overlook the impact of poverty on students and instead see charter schools as a cure-all for district ills.
“Certainly there are good things going on in charter schools, but they don’t seem to be the magical solution parents are looking for,” he said. “Certainly everybody agrees there are certain problems, but there needs to be a careful approach to dealing with those and not just jumping into unproven reforms.”
Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore said he recognizes that the new majority is unlikely to be a great friend of the union. But he added that, in his experience, keeping open communication should help bridge the divide.
“There have been many times when there have been boards that have been divisive, board members that have had an ax to grind with the BTF,” he said, “but what always happens, at least what I’m going to try to do, is open lines of communication.”
Rumore added, “We can disagree on certain issues, but why don’t we work together on what we can agree with? And I think we can.”
Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, took the opposite view.
“To people who are vested over the long term, this was a referendum over the status quo as run by the Buffalo Teachers Federation,” he said. “You’re going to see people like Larry Quinn, Carl Paladino and Jim Sampson are going to take more of a business approach. They will be less likely to accept the lack of productivity we’ve seen.”
The issue of Brown’s eventual departure and replacement is likely to be another major challenge.
It is clear that the superintendent’s days are numbered, despite the re-election of staunch Brown supporter Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, the current board president. History suggests Brown’s exit could be complicated, even though Paladino says he will call for her removal as soon as the new board is seated.
Brown, who was hired in mid-2012, offered few insights Wednesday, sidestepping questions about her future by stating that her focus remains on the students of the district. She called the unrelenting attention on her continued leadership “a distraction.”
Brown has a “no-fault” termination clause in her contract that would allow the district to fire her with one-year’s severance pay, or $217,500. Her predecessor, James A. Williams, had a similar clause, but it still took months for the board to get rid of him.
Williams’ employment contract entitled him to six months of severance pay, or $110,000, if the board chose to fire him. But the board wound up spending months wrangling over legal issues before Williams finally “retired” under a $130,000 buyout that saved the district future health insurance expenses.
Williams, however, did not resign under the same voter mandate given to Quinn and Pierce.
Quinn and some of his future board allies say the problems facing the district extend beyond Brown’s leadership. Ultimately, they say, the true test of the board will be coming up with a plan that supports what parents really want. If that includes more school choice, charters and schools in good standing, that’s what the board should work toward in a pragmatic, thoughtful and inclusive way, they said.
“My hope is that people will stop with the ‘You’re this,’ ‘You’re that,’ and putting a name on everybody, instead of saying, ‘What’s the best system for kids?’ not ‘What’s the best system for charters or unions or anyone?’ ” Quinn said.
Though Quinn and Pierce are regularly linked with Paladino, whose bulldoglike approach has been both heralded and criticized, Quinn said he doesn’t think the incoming board majority will take a my-way-or-the-highway approach.
“When you’re fixing something, you go through phases,” Quinn said. “When you’re fixing a house, there’s a knockdown phase. I guess we’ve been through that. I’m interested in the building phase.”
News Staff Reporter Tiffany Lankes contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org