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School Board’s public praise but quiet criticism of Cash is a warning of difficulty ahead

In the macro view of the Buffalo School Board’s action last week, it is heartening to see that it heaped praise on Superintendent Kriner Cash, extending his contract and giving him a well-deserved salary increase.

But when you pull it apart, troubling signs appear. While board members Barbara Seals Nevergold and Sharon Belton-Cottman publicly praised the superintendent at the meeting, their formal evaluations of him were far less glowing than their words suggested. With a new majority taking over on the board, the divergence between public statement and private assessment raises serious questions about the commitment of the new union-friendly board.

Still, it is plain that while he is not even a year on the job, Cash has distinguished himself among recent superintendents of the Buffalo School District. Capable, focused, relentless and personable, Cash earned the contract extension and raise the School Board unanimously granted him on Wednesday.

Indeed, Cash is consistently the brightest spot in the management of the district, raising expectations while rising above the chronic pettiness demonstrated by some members of the School Board. Even board members acknowledged as much, with Theresa Harris-Tigg observing that, “You came into a very fractured board, a skeptical community, and you have made some inroads here.”

In its evaluation of Cash, board members awarded him an average score of 3.43 out of a maximum score of 4. It is gratifying and maybe even hopeful that the board unanimously agreed to the contract extension, with Mary Ruth Kapsiak absent. This board rarely agrees on anything other than the mutual disdain its warring factions hold for each other.

Yet, despite their effusive praise, Nevergold and Belton-Cottman were privately more dubious of the superintendent than they let on. While the board’s overall average score for Cash was 3.43, Belton-Cottman gave Cash an average score of just 2.82 and Nevergold, only 2.4. In one subcategory – keeping the board informed on issues and encouraging teamwork – Belton-Cottman gave Cash a suspiciously low score of 1.

Coming from a board that has defined dysfunction, that would be funny if it didn’t raise worries about how the new board majority will work with Cash. It has long been clear that Nevergold is closely aligned with the Buffalo Teachers Federation, whose election activism paid off in the seating of a union-friendly board. That board is expected soon to turn to the matter of negotiating a new contract with the BTF.

The ray of hope here is that the board did extend Cash’s contract by a year and give him a 2.5 percent raise, equal to an extra $6,875 a year. And, despite how they privately scored him, Nevergold and Belton-Cottman publicly praised him so thoroughly that they have no honorable way not to continue supporting him.

That’s good, but it’s instructive to remember that Cash might never have made it here. After the board decided that former Interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie wasn’t the right fit, members floundered in their scattershot efforts to find a new superintendent.

It was only because of the appointment of MaryEllen Elia as state education commissioner that Cash found his way to Buffalo, by way of Memphis and Miami-Dade. Elia and Cash worked in Florida during the same period, and she recommended him to then-Board President James Sampson.

While his initial welcome was less than generous, Cash was soon hired, and last week, unanimously praised. That’s a testament to his ability to keep his eye on the goal and not to be distracted by the infighting of board members, even as he helps to lead and maybe even unify them.

Perhaps, at last, the board is recognizing that it has a professional at the helm and will be content to allow him to do the difficult and urgent task for which he was hired. He knows more than they do.