As prolonged and painful as the Buffalo School Board election was, it came out well, with two reformers elected to a board that desperately needs reforming. But it was only the first step and probably the easiest one of many to come.
The results all but seal the fate of Superintendent Pamela C. Brown, whose actions over the past two years have driven away many supporters. She barely survived a vote last year to fire her and then rejected a half-million-dollar overture from the business community to take her leave. But with Tuesday’s results, there are sufficient votes to dismiss the superintendent once the new board is seated in July.
What is more, she could be dismissed without a cent being paid. Her contract, which expires in July 2015, stipulates that if she is fired with less than a year remaining on her contract, the district owes her nothing. That seems likely to occur.
It would be best for all concerned – the School Board, the community, students and Brown, herself – if all of this can occur with as little drama as possible. But it is also best if all important decisions are left for the new board, including the search for a successor.
There is obviously some risk that the current majority, which has supported Brown, will seek to exert its influence during its sunset. It shouldn’t, for the sake of the community. In particular, Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold, who won re-election, should understand the importance of protecting her ability to function effectively on the new board. She shouldn’t agree to actions that will marginalize her come July.
Meanwhile, members of the majority-in-waiting seem to be taking a wise approach. Larry Quinn, who was far and away the night’s big winner, sought to put divisions aside, though insisting – correctly – that radical change is needed.
Meanwhile, board member James Sampson, whose seat was not on the ballot this year, observed that, “There’s a lot of anger and discontent that needs to be addressed before you can move forward” with dismissing the superintendent and finding a successor.
Sampson and board member Jason McCarthy said they foresee a long transition period, giving the board time to ease stresses in the community and find a new superintendent. One possible path, they believe, is to hire an interim superintendent for a prolonged period – up to two years – while the district searches for the right leader.
It’s the right idea, though the wrong time frame. Hiring an interim superintendent will be necessary, but two years seems a long time for a board bent on reform to attract qualified candidates and make a decision.
Some of the necessary qualities are obvious after the past two years: A new superintendent needs to be open, communicative, reliable, comfortable dealing with different constituencies and able to routinely meet state standards in required documents. He or she needs to be able to leverage the extraordinary help that has been provided to Buffalo by organizations such as Say Yes to Education. And, of course, the new superintendent has to be able to lead – to set a productive course and get others to follow.
A new superintendent is also liable to have to deal with a teachers union that is even more obstinate than usual. With the election, the Buffalo Teachers Federation has lost its base of support on the School Board and unless something unexpected occurs, that is liable to translate into a spike in grievances and lawsuits.
Hard decisions await, but this was the necessary first one. Next up is to find the leadership that allows the district to confront the many difficult issues that hold back Buffalo’s students and the city itself.