Reform-minded members of the School Board elected the past three years generally are doing a good job and have improved the board's performance, according to a Buffalo News survey of educators, involved parents and community leaders.
While all but one member earned a passing grade, the board as a whole drew failing grades for its work the past five years. Six of nine members have been replaced during that time, however, and respondents said the board's performance has improved since last summer.
Four of the six first-term members earned exemplary grades: Marlies A. Wesolowski, Helene H. Kramer, Florence D. Johnson and Donald A. Van Every.
Two other newcomers, James Williams and Anthony J. Luppino, received middling grades, as did board veterans Mozella Richardson and James M. Comerford. Only one member earned a below-average rating -- John C. Doyle.
Ninety-one percent of respondents gave the board a negative job rating for its performance over the past five years, a time when the board was controlled first by members with ties to then-Mayor James D. Griffin and later by a majority that was generally supportive of Superintendent Albert Thompson.
Fifty-seven percent of respondents said the board's performance has improved since July, when a new majority bloc elected Van Every president, pushed for settlement of a teachers contract and started to challenge Thompson and some of his senior aides.
"Their strength is their willingness to change. To me, that's a fresh approach," said Otto Reinhardt, a teacher at McKinley High School.
The News sent written surveys to 365 involved parents, principals, teachers, administrators, elected officials and community leaders who have had face-to-face dealings with board members. The News received responses from 154, who stated opinions on a range of issues and rated board members in 11 categories. The scale ranged from 1 for poor to 5 for excellent. Categories ranged from vision and knowledge of issues to willingness to work hard and constructively address issues.
The School Board's strength stems from a strong work ethic, respondents said. They characterized board members as hard-working, accessible, responsive and knowledgeable of what's going on in the schools.
"The board is more responsive to parents and aware of children's needs than it has been in the past," said Elaine Ackley, a former PTA president at three city schools.
The board's weakest points involve critical issues. Respondents gave the board its lowest marks for vision and knowledge of educational theory and practices, and budgetary and fiscal matters. Those marks were slightly above average, however.
"The board has a tendency to be crisis managers," said Joel Weiss, a principal and teacher in the system for 26 years before leaving last summer for a position in Clarence. "If there's a crisis that comes up in the district, they manage it. But if things come up that are not crises, they don't see the urgency to plan or respond to them."
Board members earn $5,000 a year. The six district members serve three-year terms; all face re-election in May. The three at- large members, who were elected last May, serve five-year terms.
Mrs. Wesolowski, a former parent leader who represents the East District, was rated the best School Board member. Her 4.0 rating is one of the highest accorded an elected official in News surveys, which have included analyses of Griffin, County Executive Gorski and the Common Council twice.
"Marlies has been a selflessly dedicated advocate for children and parents," one parent leader said.
Ms. Kramer, one of two at-large members who took office last July, has started well, according to respondents. She earned a 3.9 rating in what must be regarded as an incomplete mark because she was in office only four months when the survey was conducted in November.
Two other board members received above-average grades: Mrs. Johnson of the Ferry District (3.7) and Van Every of the North District (3.6).
Mrs. Johnson's rating is a bit surprising. She has not been a central player on the board since succeeding longtime board member Bettye M. Blackman in 1992. Nevertheless, her knowledge of education and her demeanor are playing well in school circles. One school administrator described her as "caring, compassionate."
Van Every was lauded for having the board's best handle on fiscal matters and for being an effective leader since taking over as president.
One community leader described him as "extremely hard-working. He has a sense of direction and knows how to accomplish his goals."
Four other members drew average marks.
Williams, who along with Ms. Kramer took office in July, received a 3.2 rating, as did Mrs. Richardson, the board's most senior member, with 21 years of service.
Williams was praised for his willingness to challenge the status quo but panned by some for his approach in doing so. Mrs. Richardson was widely regarded as adequate but stale after so many years on the job. She is not seeking re-election; neither are Comerford or Van Every.
Luppino, of the West District, was regarded as coming along more slowly than other freshman board members, in large part because he doesn't always respond to constituents in a timely fashion. He earned a 3.1 rating.
Respondents gave Comerford, who represents South Buffalo in the Park District, an average rating of 3. Comerford has clashed frequently with the education establishment over the years, but many respondents said Comerford's controversial stances have clouded what is otherwise a decent career on the board.
The outspoken Doyle was widely panned. His 2.3 rating was not only substantially lower than any other board member, but also lower than any given to a public official in News surveys.
"His motivation and agenda appear to be primarily personal/political," one school administrator said.
"He is such an obstructionist that even when he is right, nobody listens," added another respondent.
The best individual rating in an individual category went to Mrs. Wesolowski for working hard. She earned a 4.4. She earned a 4.3 for her visibility, responsiveness to constituents and knowledge of what's going on in schools. Ms. Kramer earned a 4.3 for her vision.
Doyle earned the lowest marks: 1.8 for vision and 2.1 for knowledge of educational theory and practices, and record of accomplishment.
Many respondents said there is room for cautious optimism with the board.
"The board is better than it was, but it has a long way to go," said Ms. Ackley, the parent leader. "At least now there's hope."