Leadership vacuum in Buffalo Public Schools stirs both worries, hopes - The Buffalo News

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Leadership vacuum in Buffalo Public Schools stirs both worries, hopes

Donald A. Ogilvie formally submitted his resignation letter Wednesday as interim superintendent of the Buffalo Public Schools.

A few days earlier, Barbara J. Smith had submitted her resignation letter as chief financial officer.

And on Thursday, Linda L. Cimusz turned in her resignation letter as chief academic officer.

All will be gone from the school district by July 1.

This impending leadership vacuum in the district presents both grave concerns and great opportunities, according to many school officials and education advocates.

“It’s going to be a real challenge for the Buffalo Public Schools to deal with this loss of leadership, coming all at the same time,” said Robert J. Christmann, executive director of the Western New York Educational Service Council. “It’s more than just the turnover, which is problem enough, but it’s the quality of the people who will be difficult to replace at any time individually. Having that all at the same time, how do you fill that void?”

Vacancies at the very top of the school district administration worry those who fear further destabilization of a district that has already cycled through five interim and permanent superintendents over four years.

“I’m holding my breath that nobody else from the Cabinet decides to leave,” said School Board member Barbara A. Seals Nevergold.

Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, pointed out that aside from the changing cast of characters in the superintendent’s seat, the chief academic officer also has been a revolving-door position, with four people assuming that position over the last four years.

“The tragedy is that we continue the instability,” Radford said.

Local education reform group Buffalo ReformED recently expressed its dismay at how the School Board did not begin an immediate and comprehensive search for a permanent superintendent after hiring Ogilvie in a transitional role. In a recent opinion article, the organization said the board majority now faces a leadership crisis “of its own making” after heaping unrealistic expectations on a temporary leader.

“You’ve now got a truncated timeline for finding someone,” said Jason A. Zwara, executive director of Buffalo ReformED.

Members of the School Board majority say they remain hopeful that the sudden loss of leadership will open the door to strong, new leaders who can foster district reform at a more rapid rate than the current administration.

“A lot of our charge in our last election, people want to see change. But under the current administration, we haven’t seen much change,” said board member Jason M. McCarthy. “I don’t look at it as a negative situation. I look at it as a positive, fresh start. We’ve been doing the same thing over and over again without better results, and now is an opportunity to bring fresh eyes on it.”

Board President James M. Sampson also said he believes that Ogilvie has done a good job of identifying and cultivating emerging leaders in the district who can fill key positions on an interim basis while the search for more permanent leadership continues.

That search includes looking for someone to assume the long-vacant role of deputy superintendent, with the possibility of that same person being named superintendent when Ogilvie leaves at the end of this school year.

Board majority members reaffirmed their position that the next person to hold the deputy superintendent/superintendent seat should come from within the district.

Christmann, a former Grand Island school superintendent, said it’s imperative that the board hire a new superintendent as quickly as possible. He pointed out that even if Ogilvie hires a new chief financial officer and chief academic officer before he leaves, those positions likely would be only temporary until a permanent superintendent can come in and select a leadership team.

“If you have an interim,” he said, “then everyone waits until the permanent superintendent is appointed, and everything slows down.”

Like others, he questioned how successful the board will be in finding strong leadership, especially when the board is so fractured.

“What are the positives the board could give for getting somebody to take that position?” he asked.

Radford said that while the loss of top leadership is troubling, he’s also optimistic for the future. He compared the current search for top administrators to when he started getting seriously involved in the school district a decade ago.

“I remember how disconnected the community was to the Buffalo Public School District,” he said. “You could have changed the superintendent, and nobody would know.”

Now, however, everyone from the state level down to the local level has focused their attention on the Buffalo Public Schools.

“I’m much more confident and optimistic about what’s going to happen with the superintendent, the CFO and the chief academic officer than I was when there was turnover in the past,” Radford said.

The nine-member School Board, however, continues to argue about the best way to select new leadership and to lay blame as to why current administrators are eager to leave in the first place.

Members of the board minority bloc have generally defended school district administrators and accused the majority of micromanaging the superintendent and his staff, especially in light of board member Carl P. Paladino’s recent push to immediately get rid of Ogilvie.

“People know they’ve been doing great jobs, working as hard as they can, and they are being told it doesn’t matter,” said Mary Ruth Kapsiak, one of the four members of the minority bloc. “I would hate to be an administrator in Buffalo at this point in time. It’s just not healthy.”

Meanwhile, board majority members have said the minority bloc has been a defender of the status quo and continues to stand in the way of much-needed progress after years of academic failure.

Board member Larry Quinn denied the allegation that majority bloc members micromanage administrators and said the board minority bloc’s accusations are baseless.

“If that’s happening,” he said, “I’d love to hear about that.”

Most recently, both sides debated whether the board minority had the right to solicit and stir community support for a nationwide superintendent search in the face of the board majority’s plan to choose a local deputy superintendent who could become superintendent after Ogilvie departs.

email: stan@buffnews.com

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