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AS IN ANY multimillion-dollar operation, management of the Buffalo Public Schools involves two distinct entities: a board of directors and a chief executive.

And as in any such operation, when things aren't going well, change must start at the top.

Thanks to a rash of recent retirements, the board has reconstituted itself with new faces and now has the potential to turn the district around.

But what's also needed at this juncture is a fresh, energetic administration whose leaders are not wedded to current inefficient practices and who have no interest in defending the past or fighting board-induced change.

Board members should start looking right now for that type of leadership, and they must be willing to pay the price -- and take the knee-jerk public criticism -- to get it. Top-flight superintendents are in demand and will not come cheap. Buffalo cannot afford to settle for second best just to save a few bucks in the short run.

Superintendent Albert Thompson brought obvious strengths to the job when tapped to replace the departed Eugene Reville five years ago. He'd long been the district's top finance officer and clearly knew budgets and funding formulas inside out. That knowledge stood him in good stead in wiping out the district's accumulated debt and dealing with annual funding gaps.

A record of inadequacy

But while that was a plus, the district's shortcomings in recent years have been just as obvious. They include:

The failure to get state building aid it was entitled to while schools crumbled.

The loss of interest income because state and federal grants weren't applied for in a timely manner.

Faulty record-keeping that may have affected per-pupil state aid.

Failure to get court-ordered desegregation money because of the inability to present a budget anyone could understand.

The negotiations fiasco that resulted in an unaffordable teacher's contract being forced on the district.

Those are management problems. And that list doesn't even include other issues, such as the lack of communication between
the central office and the schools, or the inability to rattle cages and drum up the necessary support for education. Like it or not, that is as much a part of the job as knowing how to count.

Thompson, of course, is not solely to blame. Some will even say he was undermined by resistant underlings. But dealing with resistance is part of the art of management, and responsibility has to start at the top. Extraordinary leadership is needed now.

The board already has forced out two other top administrators, going so far as to buy out the remaining four years on the contract of Thompson's second-in-command.

Thompson himself has a little over a year remaining on his contract. The board should start moving now to find a replacement and to buy out the remainder of Thompson's pact if it appears a new superintendent can be found before then. The district cannot afford to drift any longer.

The school system does have strengths. Buffalo's schools are safe, they have good teachers, student achievement is typical of that in other urban districts, and there are some really good schools and programs. That should be enticing to an innovative, energetic superintendent.

But the city will have to pay the going rate to get one.

Face up to the cost of top talent

Buffalo is paying Thompson $94,000 to manage a 47,543-student district with the myriad problems associated with a poor city. Who's going to come to Buffalo for that when they can go to a peer city like Pittsburgh and make $110,000?

In fact, Buffalo isn't even the best-paying district in this area, despite its size. Sweet Home, at one-tenth the size and with far fewer problems to manage, pays its superintendent almost $10,000 more than Buffalo. Williamsville pays $15,000 more.

Offering a competitive salary to get a top-quality superintendent will be far more cost-effective than scrimping. If the board tries to hire a new superintendent on the cheap, it will watch a multimillion-dollar investment in the schools go down the drain, and it will watch taxpaying homeowners move to suburbs where they think the schools are better managed.

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