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THE BUFFALO PUBLIC schools are at a turning point that makes next Tuesday's Board of Education elections pivotal.

The sheen of a successful integration effort and highly praised magnet schools has worn off as complaints about neighborhood schools mount.

A confused bargaining strategy and unfriendly courts have left the schools facing sagging morale and a $142 million teacher contract with no money to fund it.

Public confidence has been shaken by the knowledge that poor bookkeeping made the district miss out on state money.

But for all the problems, there remains a solid foundation to build on. There also is a new administration in City Hall that understands the importance of this area's largest school system.

There are 16 candidates running for three five-year, at-large seats on the nine-member board, each post paying $5,000 per year. The large number of interested candidates bodes well, as do the good credentials of many of them.

The winners will take their places alongside a cadre of good district representatives elected two years ago; and if voters pick wisely, the board could regain its focus and achieve the consensus necessary to give solid direction to the district.

Three candidates -- Helene Kramer, Gilbert Hernandez and Jimmie Pilcher Jr. -- stand out, and The News recommends them.

Helene Kramer

Kramer, 50, the mother of two Buffalo public-school graduates, is a founding member and past president of the citywide United Parents educational advocacy group.

She puts her finger on a key district weakness in noting there has been no comprehensive plan since the magnet school program was developed two decades ago. One example of her vision is the call for thematic high schools. For example, the district should capitalize on the Main-High streets medical campus and other local hospitals by developing a health-sciences high school.

It's the type of effort that would build on the successful magnet concept while also better preparing students for the jobs of tomorrow. And it summarizes a theme of Kramer's campaign: doing more of what works, while discarding the rest.

Similarly, she would extend her belief in planning to an administration that has lost some public confidence. She would have the board give the staff tasks and deadlines and then hold workers accountable. That's the type of direction the district lacks now.

Despite her history of parent activism, Kramer would balance the need for more parental input in decision-making under the state's New Compact for Learning by noting parents also have to trust the expertise of professionals on some matters. It's a reasoned perspective typical of her insightful approach.

Kramer sees the mayor, business community and local colleges all poised to help the district if it can just get its own act together. She could be just the force to make that happen.

Gilbert Hernandez

A long-time activist, Hernandez exhibits both the sensitivity and the realism needed to confront the problems of an urban district.

A state job counselor and former Youth Division worker, he is especially concerned about the necessity of discipline and the need to better integrate the schools and the workplace. His proposals to add a police voice to the school-based management teams and to have the city open some of its planned mini-police stations near high schools could help stem disruption, particularly that caused by outsiders.

At the same time, he would have more cross-cultural training of teachers to prevent disciplinary problems from poor communication and misunderstanding.

The 45-year-old Hernandez, who has a son and grandson in the city schools, also would have schools provide more after-hours educational and recreation services for families in the recognition that if schools don't, society will have to deal with the consequences later.

Like most of this year's candidates, Hernandez believes that teachers deserve a raise but that the financial settlement must be spread out. He also favors residency for new hires, reasoning that teachers who live in the community will be much more effective practitioners of the New Compact's concept of community involvement.

In a city and school system with a rapidly growing Hispanic population, Hernandez also would provide a needed perspective. For example, he has been one of the few candidates to cite the need to make sure bilingual-education students graduate with English competence.

But that is hardly the only issue on which Hernandez takes a refreshingly practical approach. The board and the city could benefit from his insights and experience.

Jimmie Pilcher Jr.

Pilcher's background demonstrates his grass-roots commitment to the district and to children. A firefighter with two children in city schools, the 39-year-old Pilcher helped write the district's plan to meet the New Compact's requirements for parental involvement.

He also has been a volunteer with the Effective Parenting Information for Children program that teaches parents how to cope with all the challenges of parenthood. Both experiences give him insights that would be invaluable to the board.

For example, he sensibly calls for an EPIC-like program throughout the district to curtail teen pregnancies by giving students a realistic view of the consequences of sexual activity.

Getting more adults -- particularly more males -- involved in the schools also is a key concern of Pilcher's. As president of School 61's parent-teacher organization, he is in the schools often and sees a lack of males as role models. He contends that simply getting more parents into the schools through the New Compact would curtail discipline problems, and he gets no argument here. His time in the schools has convinced him that kids are amenable to adult direction, if only more were there to provide it.

Pilcher recognizes that parents must be involved in school-based decision making but that they cannot take the place of trained teachers. And he, too, wants to duplicate the success of the magnet schools throughout the district.

Pilcher would drop the court fight over the teacher's contract, honor the pact and spread retroactive payments over several years. But he also would support residency for new employees if that's what city dwellers want. He recognizes the beneficial impact of having more people in the city who know how to organize and get things done.

Commitment, original thinking and knowledge of how the district operates would make Pilcher a fine board member.

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