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NEW REGENT BRINGS UNITED WAY BACKGROUND TO POST

Robert M. Bennett, without fanfare or soapbox, helped redefine the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County.

Now he is hoping to help redefine education in New York state as a new member of the Board of Regents. "We need to know, for example, if the lack of services to families contributes to a student not being successful in school," Bennett said. "If that is the case, we need to be able to answer the economic and social needs of the family through programs that can be offered in our schools every day of the week, if necessary."

Bennett, president of the local United Way, never asked to be a regent, and once asked, he never campaigned for the prestigious appointment.

"I got a call to tell me the Western New York delegation wanted a non-political candidate," Bennett said.

It was just two weeks before a candidate for regent from Western New York was to be submitted to the Legislature.

"It was not only a real surprise, but, initially, I wondered whether I could even consider it," Bennett said. "I work for a board of directors with very specific bylaws that forbid any employee from being involved in partisan politics."

During his interview -- "with the entire Western New York delegation" -- Bennett said he was told that " 'once you are there, it is not your job to be engaged at all in partisan politics, but to work for education.' "

While a regent appointment is political, and there are no specific requirements for the position, "the Assembly persons involved choose a person who will bring stature and credibility to the Board of Regents," said Patricia Lynch, press secretary to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan.

"There Mr. Bennett passed his interviews with flying colors."

Bennett, along with former Newsday publisher Robert Johnson, was approved March 14 for a five-year term on the board, which sets the state's education policies. He succeeded Willard A. Genrich, an Amherst attorney who served on the board for 21 years.

The immediate challenge for the 16-member board will be to find a new commissioner for the state Education Department.

Commissioner Thomas Sobol has announced he will leave his $136,500 a year job by late summer or early fall. Appointed in 1987, the 63-year-old commissioner has been publicly critical of Gov. Pataki's proposed cuts for education.

Pataki has also called for the Board of Regents to be abolished because he feels it has failed the state's education system.

Bennett said there will be a nationwide search for a new commissioner, "but the appointment is wide open."

"I have always been a firm believer that you don't have to travel far from home to find suitable candidates," he said.

Bennett took the appointment with strong support and encouragement from the United Way board of directors.

"Two years ago, the executive committee and the board of United Way made a very conscious decision that we wanted Bob out of the building more," said United Way Chairwoman Pamela Davis-Heilman.

"We wanted him to become involved with the entire community and play a key role in helping to solve the problems being faced by our citizens and by the communities.

"We have an experienced senior staff," Ms. Davis-Heilman continued, "who don't need continuous direction from Bob, and we promoted Arlene Kaukus to executive vice president and gave her some of Bob's responsibility in the building."

Ms. Davis-Heilman said Bennett's position as a regent "should mesh perfectly with our focus on children and their families."

Bennett is resigning from the boards of Erie Community and Medaille colleges and the multimillion-dollar Private Industry Council job-training program.

"The hours I spent with those boards," he said, "I can devote to the regents . . . and learning what is going on in other school districts across the state and bring those programs to Western New York.

"The City of Buffalo will be a prime target," he said.

"I think the urban centers face almost indescribable problems with violence, drugs, deteriorating buildings and lack of resources. We have some extraordinary challenges in education.

"It was mind-boggling to me when I recently visited some schools in Buffalo and had principals and teachers tell me that with a security buzzer system, they still don't feel they and the students are safe. They feel they need a uniformed security guard standing outside the door."

Bennett hopes to bring the state departments of Education, Youth and Social Services together with United Way agencies to form consortiums that will give students and their families support they need to cope with any problems they are facing.

The concept was introduced a few years ago in the Sweet Home School District and has been chalking up an impressive record of accomplishments, he said.

Bennett said several other school districts "are interested in the program, and we hope to eventually have it in all the schools and certainly let the rest of the state know about it."

Once he is formally sworn in at the end of April, Bennett said one of his first moves will be to "create local advisory groups made up of parents, educators, students, School Board members, representatives from higher education and neighborhood groups so when I have to make decisions on policy, I will be guided by them."

"Regents have a responsibility statewide," Bennett added, "but we also have a responsibility to our individual districts.

"But to accomplish anything, there must be consensus, and my whole professional life has been built around consensus."

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