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Wilmers led private sector in trying to reform public education

M&T Bank Chairman Robert G. Wilmers cared about urban public education at a time when many of his business colleagues had written off Buffalo schools as a lost cause.

Never a believer that poverty should doom children to failure, Wilmers aggressively worked to prove that community investment in schools could lead to stronger outcomes for public school children. That faith resulted in millions of dollars being funneled toward the struggling Buffalo school district, where roughly half the student population regularly failed to graduate.

He started by having M&T Bank adopt one of the poorest-performing schools on the East Side, Public School 68, and turning it into Westminster Community Charter School in 1993. Eventually M&T would adopt three schools in the neighborhood and rebrand them Buffalo Promise Neighborhood schools. He also supported the hiring of more attendance teachers in the district.

"He said how could you not be concerned about this data when these children are not learning?" recalled Robert M. Bennett, former chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents. "He practiced what he preached. The Promise Neighborhood is one of the biggest multipurpose initiatives in this community."

Wilmers' commitment of personal and corporate resources served as a springboard for other high-profile education initiatives in the district.

These include his financial support for the superintendent search that led to the hiring of James Williams, one of the longest-serving superintendents in recent history; his advocacy for Teach for America, which finally set foot in the district in 2014; and his unflagging support for Say Yes Buffalo, which promises all eligible Buffalo Public School students fully covered college tuition.

"He was the first person to call us when we hit benchmarks and did good work, and he was also the first person to tell us we can always do better," said Katie Campos, executive director of Teach for America in Buffalo. "He maintained a high standard for excellence and wouldn't settle for less because he knew our kids deserved it."

Wilmers also stepped in to change what he considered to be poor district leadership. He offered to finance a buyout for controversial Superintendent Pamela Brown and was once so frustrated by the district's political infighting that he lobbied the state to take over the district.

Wilmers believed that a stronger city began with a stronger educational foundation. Not all his efforts led to success – Buffalo Promise Neighborhood Schools have yielded mixed academic results and student attendance remains a trouble spot – but Wilmers' personal commitment to education set him apart.

"We can no longer afford the luxury of critiquing a shared public system without taking the time to lend our individual talents and attention to addressing its problems," Wilmers said in the State of Public Education in Buffalo summit he convened in 2015. "The future of our children, and the City of Buffalo itself, is in our hands. It is imperative that we act and that we act now."

Not everyone was a fan of Wilmers' approach, which was viewed by some as a narrow and elitist, underestimating the role of poverty in education. Teachers union President Phil Rumore routinely criticized Wilmers' support for charter schools and once said Wilmers' understanding of public education finances "makes me wonder how M&T survives."

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore. (Buffalo News file photo)

But Rumore was among those shocked and saddened Sunday to hear of Wilmers' death. Over the decades, the two men became friends. In fact, Rumore said he had just finished wrapping a Christmas present for Wilmers –  a floating globe suspended by magnets –  when he heard the news Sunday.

"We'd talk and we'd disagree – we disagreed on education – but no one's done more for this community than Bob," Rumore said. "He was trying to do what he thought was the right thing. He cared. He really did care."

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