Buffalo's schools haven't lost their luster by accident. It's taken a lot of bad leadership.
Call it the continuing crisis in education leadership. Jimmy Griffin and the Common Council precipitated it with their penny-pinching. The Board of Education furthered it with misguided focus. And Superintendent Albert Thompson continues it with his uninspired stewardship.
The worst may be over with the election of Anthony Masiello as mayor, the ascension of a reform-minded coalition on the School Board and the growing involvement of the business community. But progress is being measured in inches, and most of the challenges facing leadership remain unconfronted.
"There has been a void in leadership throughout the whole community," said City Comptroller Joel A. Giambra.
During the 1980s and early 1990s Mayor James D. Griffin and the Common Council refused to increase aid to the schools despite inflation and the district's growing costs. The state came to the rescue with big increases in aid, which helped until two key events accelerated the leadership crisis.
First, the Griffin political machine in 1989 succeeded in electing like-minded candidates to the School Board, and they quickly formed a majority whose tone and tactics set the stage for the loss of two key educators: Superintendent Eugene Reville left for a similar job in Little Rock, Ark., and Associate Superintendent Joseph Murray decided to retire.
Within two years, the state froze what had been ever-increasing school aid because of its own deficits.
The leadership crisis spiraled.<
Thompson a disappointment
Thompson has come under intense criticism from many quarters after being promoted in 1989 to replace Reville.
A decent man? Absolutely.
An effective leader? Many think not.
Eighty-four percent of the educators, involved parents and community leaders who responded to a Buffalo News survey gave Thompson a negative job rating.
"There's a tremendous void in leadership in this system since Gene Reville left and Joe Murray retired," said Jim Maciejewski, a social studies teacher at School 45. "Al Thompson is a nice man, but he's not the man to run this system and there doesn't seem to be a lot of other leadership at the top."
Thompson was a numbers man before becoming superintendent, first as director of research and later as the school district's chief financial officer.
As a result, innovation and vision are not considered his strengths. Neither are communication and public relations.
"There's a lack of vision at central office," said Marlies A. Wesolowski, who represents the East District on the Board of Education. "I think those people who do have vision are stifled."
Many principals complain that Thompson and much of his central office staff at City Hall are out of touch.
"You don't call City Hall for anything, because when you do, you never get any support," said Jacqueline Morana, principal at Houghton Academy.
Thompson also is criticized as not being an effective administrator.
"He doesn't have any system or the stamina to ensure that some departments are doing what's expected of them and doing it on time," said School Board President Donald A. Van Every. "When someone screws up, excuses are just accepted. There are no sanctions."
Board members long have groused about Thompson's poor communication skills. They aren't alone. Giambra recalled telephoning Thompson more than 30 consecutive working days trying to obtain information needed to seek retroactive school aid from the state.
In his defense, Thompson took command at an inopportune time.
"Many of the realities of the '90s were so brutal that many people blamed Thompson for bringing them the bad news," said Carol Streiff, who has monitored for the plaintiffs the district's compliance with the desegregation order.
Mrs. Streiff and Mrs. Wesolowski said Thompson hasn't been given credit for steering the district through tough fiscal times. He inherited a $10 million debt from Reville, and the district retired it in less time than it was given by the state.
Thompson also managed to deal with back-to-back budgets that were missing $25 million in anticipated funds.
"He has been fiscally responsible and has distributed millions of dollars of cuts equitably throughout the system with a minimum of public outcry," Mrs. Streiff said.
Others credit Thompson for being more candid about the school system.
"I think we're more honest today about what we do and how we do it," said John Bargnesi, principal at School 51.
Why, then, do many think Thompson has failed? He has failed to surround himself with innovative administrators and hold staff accountable.
Thompson rejects charges that he has not been an innovator. A lack of funds has hamstrung but not stopped such efforts, he said.
He blames the holdup on principals and teachers.
"They are resistant to change," he said.
Thompson, 61, has indicated his intention to serve the remaining year-and-a-half of his contract, which under state law is almost ironclad.
School Board also lacking
Although the superintendent comes under heavy criticism, some say the buck shouldn't stop on his desk.
"Al is the lighting rod, he's not the problem," said David Kelly, one of Thompson's harshest critics when he served on the School Board. "The Board of Education is the problem. The Board of Education is ultimately responsible."
Many seem to agree.
The educators, involved parents and community leaders who answered The News survey gave the board a 91 percent negative job rating over the past five years. That's worse than Thompson's.
While infighting has been less of a problem the past 2 1/2 years, micromanagement has continued, sometimes at the expense of dealing with larger issues.
The board has been known to debate the availability of toilet paper in school bathrooms and problems with shelves at the new Science Magnet school. Yet it took more than two years to act on recommendations to revise curriculum dealing with sex education and drugs.
"Sometimes, as board members, we focus on the trees rather than the forest," said Mrs. Wesolowski.
Some board members said they have reason to focus so much on details.
"The administration doesn't take care of the day-to-day problems to the fullest and our constituents call us," said West District Board Member Anthony Luppino.
The current board, under the control of a new majority since July, has started making its presence felt. Many in the education community have taken note.
Fifty-seven percent of survey respondents said the board's performance has improved since July, after two new members took office and joined other board reformers. Some of the reformers are frustrated by the slow pace of change, however.
"Boards like this one are inherently weak because of the powers that are vested in the superintendent and the ability of the system to out wait the reformers," said Kelly, a retired 18-year veteran.
Mayor Masiello has not been shy about criticizing the School Board -- especially its spending habits. He's gone so far as to support legislation championed by New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani that would give big-city mayors some control over how School Boards spend money.
"You need greater scrutiny and accountability," he said.
Masiello's tentative start
Masiello's support of the bill -- without first attempting to strike an arrangement with the board -- is typical of what some school officials consider the mayor's biggest problem. He has not established a working relationship with the Board of Education or its top administrators.
Face-to-face communication between the mayor and top school officials has been limited and generally not productive. Masiello grouses that school officials haven't been forthcoming and ignore his advice. School officials complain the mayor has been standoffish and too quick to criticize them in public.
Van Every, who said Masiello failed to return his phone calls for months after the board approved the teacher's contract settlement, said there has been a thaw.
"We're both making an effort to work on the relationship," Van Every said.
Others on the board remain troubled by the politicking of William Buyers, one of the mayor's top political operatives. Buyers has worked to recruit candidates to run against several school board incumbents. Masiello said he neither supports nor objects to Buyers' efforts.
Building bridges is only part of Masiello's task. The other half is improving the city's modest investment in its schoolchildren. Masiello acknowledges that city government has a history of not providing the schools enough money-- and quickly adds that the city's budget problems limits his ability to change that soon.
School officials are disappointed that Masiello's first budget effectively cut city operating aid to the schools by $1.5 million -- at a time when he increased spending for police and fire services. They also are nervous about talk from his budget officials about a possible cut of $10 million for the coming budget.
Masiello, however, has indicated a willingness to increase capital spending to improve school facilities.
Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, said the actions of political and school leaders in the near future will have long-term implications.
"There is a great deal of uncertainty in the leadership at all levels," he said. "The next year-and-a-half is going to be absolutely critical."
WEDNESDAY: Schools are ill-equipped to handle growing legions of troubled kids.