Why are business leaders so invested in Buffalo schools? - The Buffalo News
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Why are business leaders so invested in Buffalo schools?

Buffalo-area employers in the next decade will need to hire 165,000 workers, many of them for new jobs spawned by massive development projects such as the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and the RiverBend energy hub.

And demographics suggest that number could be even greater, depending on when baby boomers retire.

Meeting that demand depends largely on the success of the Buffalo Public Schools, and that reality increasingly is fueling interest from business leaders representing all facets of the area’s economy. Those employers realize the success of their ventures – and the region as a whole – lies in their ability to cultivate a sustainable workforce and create a school system that can entice families to the area.

“We’re making big bets on Buffalo,” said developer Nick Sinatra, the latest businessman to publicly get involved with education in the city. “You also have to make big bets on the children in Buffalo, because you can’t have a successful city without a successful school system.”

Sinatra announced this week a plan to donate a share of the profits from his next real estate venture to Say Yes Buffalo, which provides college scholarships to city school students. Sinatra, who partnered with a New York City hedge fund manager and Buffalo native, plans to contribute 10 percent of the monthly profits from his project at the former Phoenix Brewer Co. to the education initiative.

The developer is among a swelling number of business leaders throwing their interest – and dollars – into Buffalo’s education programs, from donating to scholarship programs to running for seats on the School Board.

Local business leaders say that interest comes with a growing awareness of the problems of the Buffalo Public Schools and the effect a graduation rate that hovers around 50 percent has on the future workforce.

“There have been business leaders in the Buffalo community who have taken an interest in education for quite some time,” Mayor Byron W. Brown said. “It is exciting now to see younger business leaders recognize the critical importance education plays in the growth and development of our community.”

“Say Yes is an absolute game changer for the children in Buffalo that will help transform their lives, their families, their neighborhoods and, ultimately, the city,” Brown added.

The interest in Buffalo’s schools underscores what has been happening across the country for the past decade as notable and high-profile business leaders seek to leave their mark on public education.

Business leaders have long argued that U.S. schools do not adequately prepare students for the 21st century and the high-tech jobs that are now available. That forces them to outsource labor to countries with stronger education systems and much larger pools of qualified workers.

“The bigger picture, and the way they see it, is you can’t have a strong city without a strong public education system,” said David Rust, executive director of Say Yes Buffalo. “This is about the economic development of the city. The other stuff is great. The cranes are good. The buildings are great. But we need people to work in all these places.”

Even as Buffalo saw a uptick in its graduation rate to 57 percent this past year, the state estimates that just 12 percent of students are prepared for college or a career.

For all too many young people, that lack of preparedness leads straight to the unemployment line, or worse.

“We’re not teaching kids, we’re not conditioning them to succeed,” said developer and School Board member Carl Paladino. “No one’s telling these kids you can go into welding and make the same amount of money out of school as a pharmacist. There’s no one showing them they can do this instead of selling drugs on the corner to buy a fancy car. That’s how you break this cycle of poverty that plagues urban areas.”

In response to that dire outlook, national business leaders have invested in programs they believe will yield results. Most notable is former Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Bill Gates, whose Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funnels billions of dollars into public education. Influenced by the work of Andrew Carnegie and the Rockefeller family, Gates sold some of his Microsoft stock to create the foundation.

Representing the younger generation of entrepreneurs, Facebook Inc. Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg contributed $100 million to the Newark Public Schools.

Those business leaders have also been a driving force behind the hotly debated Common Core Learning Standards, which they say will equip students with the skills needed to succeed in the future.

M&T’s leadership

In Buffalo, M&T Bank Corp. was the first major business player to get involved in the city schools when about two decades ago it partnered with the district to open what is now the Westminster Charter School.

The bank has since grown its presence in the schools and the community, becoming the driving force behind the Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, which aims to provide students with resources and support from birth to college.

“Bob Wilmers saw an opportunity to create sort of a unique partnership with the Buffalo school district,” said David Chamberlain, chief executive officer of Buffalo Promise Neighborhood and a senior vice president at M&T Bank.

“This is an opportunity to give back to the community,” he added. “I think businesses want to be involved in education. I’m not sure they know exactly how to go about doing it.”

Some of that has come with awareness, and that too is growing with the help of organizations like Say Yes and the John R. Oishei Foundation, which in recent years has made education a top priority. Both organizations have boards that include high-profile business leaders such as Luke Jacobs, Daniel Lewis and Alphonso O’Neil White, and are credited with driving interest and dollars to education programs.

“It doesn’t take much to get me talking about education reform and what it means in this community,” said Robert D. Gioia, leader of the Oishei Foundation and a member of the Say Yes scholarship board.

“With the whole workforce development initiative, the Buffalo Billion, Say Yes Buffalo, I think the stars are aligning,” he added.

And now, even some of the area’s wealthiest and most influential businessmen, have seats at the table as policy makers. In the past two years, Paladino and Larry Quinn, a former part-owner of the Buffalo Sabres, have won seats on the Buffalo School Board.

“Generally the view, and my view until recently, was there’s nothing you can do,” Quinn said. “Why get yourself frustrated? People like to invest in things they think are going to win. If you were going to try to affect education before, some might say it’s just throwing money down a rat hole.”

‘A big impact’

Sinatra’s newest effort, a partnership with Daniel Lewis, founder and managing partner of Orange Capital LLC, calls for Lewis to join Sinatra and Matt Connors, vice president of real estate for Sinatra and Company Realty, as owners of the Phoenix project at 835 Washington St.

The building, which Sinatra acquired in April for $1.78 million from Joseph Parlato, is located at the corner of Virginia Street, on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

The three plan to redevelop the 55,000-square-foot warehouse building into 35 to 40 high-end loft apartments, aimed at doctors, researchers or other campus workers. The $5 million historic renovation also calls for retail space to serve tenants, as well as indoor parking.

In turn, the partners have now agreed, in writing, to contribute 10 percent of their monthly profits to the Say Yes Buffalo Scholarship Fund, the educational initiative that pays college tuition for Buffalo high school students. Those proceeds, from rents or other revenues, could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars over 20 years, Sinatra said.

“We want to have a big impact on the community,” Sinatra said. “That’s a way to give back in a sustainable way.”

And both Lewis and Sinatra hope that will provide a model for other developers and business leaders to follow as well.

“This is something I’d love to replicate,” Lewis said. “We want to get other people to think similarly and invest with us in similar types of projects.”

Say Yes was formed to encourage high school students to get a college education by providing scholarships to public and charter schools graduates. The Buffalo Scholarship Fund, established in 2011, has grown to $19.2 million, mostly from local individuals, families, businesses and other organizations.

Last year, the fund helped pay for 1,015 students to attend college, and officials expect that number to increase significantly this year. But backers hope to raise even more, with an interim target of $30 million, but a long-term goal of $60 million to $100 million to last 20 years.

“Daniel Lewis has been one of our earliest and continues to be one of our most generous supporters of the Say Yes initiative. He is always thinking, always coming up with new ideas about how we can support the initiative,” said Say Yes Buffalo Scholarship chairman Alphonso O’Neil-White. “One of our goals is to create a college-going culture in Buffalo and that takes time and a commitment from the community to sustain this initiative.”

The developers will apply for construction permits from the city, and will seek approval from the Planning Board. They also hope for state and federal historic tax credits to offset up to 40 percent of the renovation costs. Sinatra said he hopes the building will be finished and open by late spring 2015.

Meanwhile, during construction, the team wants to use the building as a billboard of sorts for Say Yes to promote the initiative and raise community awareness.

“We’ve looked at other things, but this just seemed like a really good, high-profile project that made a ton of sense,” Lewis said. “What you’re hoping for is a positive cycle of growth and development for the economy, but all starting with the idea of helping a child.”

Commitment to area

The project continues a high level of engagement for Sinatra and Lewis, both of whom wear their Buffalo pride on their sleeves.

“It’s a unique feeling that everybody can feel but it’s hard to express,” Lewis said. “It’s very much who I am, and I feel really proud to be from the area, and I want to do my part.”

Lewis, the son of two retired Buffalo-area teachers, graduated from Cornell University before pursuing a career on Wall Street, where he rose to become a director with Citigroup’s Global Special Situations Group. In 2005, he and Russell Hoffman founded Orange Capital to invest in undervalued firms and push for change.

Sinatra, a Yale University graduate and former Republican political operative, returned to his hometown in 2009 to invest in real estate, focusing on historic renovations. Backed by deep pockets within the Pritzker family that founded the Hyatt hotel chain, he began snapping up property in Kenmore, Tonawanda and North Buffalo. More recently, he ventured into Allentown, the Elmwood Village, the medical campus, and downtown, where he is buying the Market Arcade Building.

But it’s their community commitment to Buffalo and education that brought the duo together, and attracted Connors. Lewis set up the Lewis Family Foundation in 2009 at the Community Foundation to support Western New York nonprofits, and worked with Clotilde Dedecker of Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo to bring Say Yes to Buffalo as one of its angel investors. He now serves on both the Buffalo Scholarship and national boards of the group, and has donated over $1 million to the local and national efforts.

“It’s a critical part of our company to be involved in positive ways in our community,” Sinatra said. “It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.”

So when Lewis came up with the idea of combining real estate investment and economic development with support for Say Yes, and asked Dedecker for help in finding a partner, Dedecker suggested Sinatra, and “it didn’t take much convincing,” Lewis said.

“Nick has built a terrific track record in real estate development,” said Lewis, “but what I admire most is his commitment to the Western New York community.”

email: jepstein@buffnews.com and tlankes@buffnews.com

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