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School takeover plans under way despite lack of law

The Common Council president already is receiving resumes from people wanting to sit on a new Buffalo School Board of mayoral appointees.

Mayor Bryon W. Brown also is thought to be in talks with at least one school administrator to lead the district. He has previously said his staff is preparing for the transition, and that he has someone in mind to serve as superintendent.

And the names of business and community leaders already are being floated as candidates for a new board.

Although state legislation authorizing mayoral control of the Buffalo Public Schools still lacks a Republican sponsor in the GOP-dominated Senate, that hasn’t stopped city power brokers from quietly plotting what a takeover of the troubled district would look like.

“It sounds like a lot of political jockeying among some pretty influential people,” said one source who requested anonymity because of connections to key players in the debate.

The push for mayoral control is playing out in a tug of war, with some usual allies pulling in opposite directions.

But if power to appoint a new superintendent and a new School Board finally comes to rest in the mayor’s office, it comes with risks. Most notably, it will put the new board at square one, leaving those appointees to find their way through the muddle of federal laws, state policies and union rules that govern the education system.

Mayoral control would also come at a time members of the current School Board are starting to see eye to eye on some issues, and board majority-bloc leaders have already started recruiting high-profile candidates to serve as the next district leader.

Players in the drama include some powerful political and business leaders at both the local and state level: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Robert G. Wilmers.

Meanwhile, Brown has remained relatively quiet on the prospect, saying he intends to be respectful of the authorizing process as it plays out in Albany. He was not available to comment on whether he is talking to potential candidates to take over if the bill passes before the legislative session ends June 17.

One person close to the situation said the mayor already is having conversations with people to take on leadership roles, including Grabiarz School of Excellence Principal Gregory Mott.

Mott said that the mayor’s office has not contacted him.

If it passes, the bill also would immediately dissolve the current School Board. Names being mentioned as potential new board members include John Koelmel, the former banker and HarborCenter official; District Parent Coordinating Council President Samuel L. Radford III; L. Nathan Hare, executive director of the Community Action Organization of Erie County; and Alphonso O’Neill-White, former president of BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York.

For some, it is becoming increasingly apparent that conversations about a new era are already happening despite Brown’s public silence.

“I haven’t been involved in any conversations, but you can tell it’s elevating,” said Darius Pridgen, Common Council president. “The fact I’m getting resumes is evidence of that.”

Business interests

The push for mayoral control is the culmination of years of frustration over the state of the Buffalo Public Schools – and growing interest within the business community in influencing the district’s direction.

On one side, you have M&T Bank Chairman Wilmers, who has been quietly pushing the model, leaning on the political influence he has with Cuomo and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul.

That pits him against Carl Paladino – Cuomo’s political foe – who as a member of the board majority now has a strong say in district decisions.

Insiders say Wilmers has been frustrated with the lack of progress of the board majority, whom he and other influential business leaders supported in recent elections.

History shows the city’s business leaders are not shy about expressing their frustration by trying to influence the district’s leadership.

Wilmers was reported to be involved in an effort – along with Oishei Foundation President Robert D. Gioia – to raise a half million dollars from deep-pocketed community members to buy out former Superintendent Pamela Brown.

After she refused the offer, many business leaders turned their attention to the board elections. They poured tens of thousands of dollars into the campaigns in a somewhat symbolic show of discontent about the state of the district.

Paladino allies Larry Quinn and Patti Pierce handily won, upsetting the board majority. Shortly thereafter the new majority released an ambitious vision statement that called for creating more charter schools and adding seats to the highest-performing district schools. One provision even proposed turning the district’s most struggling schools over to the state as a “recovery district.”

Almost immediately the majority bloc encountered roadblocks in the labyrinth of state rules and union contracts that drive much education policy, slowing their progress.

Within just six months of the majority taking control, Wilmers publicly expressed his frustration to a crowd of city power brokers at a State of the Schools address. When asked after the speech whether he had any renewed faith because of the new majority, he responded that he did not feel they accomplished anything.

Political dynamics

Meanwhile, forces in Albany were also turning their attention to the city schools.

Cuomo first indicated his intention to exercise more control over the schools a few years ago when he called for a “death penalty” for failing schools and districts.

Then in this year’s budget, he created a mechanism for the state to appoint a receiver to control schools that have consistently failed to meet state standards.

Now, he has joined the push for mayoral control, which if enacted would strip power from his 2010 gubernatorial challenger, Paladino.

That collection of mayoral-control supporters includes Peoples-Stokes, who through her Grassroots organization has also tried to exercise influence over the schools. Last year her stepdaughter, Gizelle Stokes, unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the board.

It’s still unclear how much of a political chance her bill stands, but those on both sides are engaging in aggressive politicking. Amid that effort, the person most central to the model has stayed relatively quiet. Brown has offered little more than saying he is ready to take control if the community wants it.

Brown’s relative silence on the issue raises questions about whether he has ambitions outside of City Hall, and whether he may ultimately get tapped for an appointment in Albany. Cuomo has appointed the mayor to several state boards, most recently the State University of New York Board of Trustees.

If Brown were to accept an Albany job, the mayor’s seat – and control of the district – would fall to Pridgen. When asked his thoughts on that scenario, the Council president points to his experience in and passion for education.

“I think that when you’re the mayor you have to be ready for everything,” said Pridgen, who also served briefly on the Buffalo School Board. “I have been personally a strong education advocate, and a strong advocate for radical change. It comes with the territory.”

Strange bedfellows

It could be an odd coincidence that some of the same people pushing mayoral control are among those co-hosting a reception next week for the area’s new representative to the state Board of Regents, which oversees education policy.

Wilmers, Brown and Peoples-Stokes are among the hosts for a reception to meet with Regent Catherine Fisher Collins, whom Peoples-Stokes helped get elected.

Several people involved say the timing of the reception, and its organizers, is purely happenstance.

“Honestly, that topic was never mentioned,” said developer F. James McGuire, one of the hosts for the event. “I don’t have a position on mayoral control.”

e-mail: tlankes@buffnews.com