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Buffalo School Board President Paul G. Buchanan did a gutsy thing this week when, acting as an individual board member, he sent the Buffalo Teachers Federation and School Superintendent James Harris a package of options for possible resolution of the 10-year-old back-pay dispute with the teachers.

It was a demonstration of the kind of bold leadership that has been lacking in Buffalo's public education system for far too long.

Sure, all hell broke loose because Buchanan neglected to clue in other board members ahead of time about the letter, which he also made public. But if a departure from protocol is what it takes to prod the board into taking a first step toward solving a long-festering problem, then so be it. In fact, if the School Board were less sensitive about personal slights and procedures and more passionate about the educational needs of Buffalo's children, the school system might not be experiencing the problems it is today.

Buchanan's unauthorized letter was significant for several reasons. It pierced the veil of silence that has enshrouded the Board of Education since State Supreme Court Justice Edward A. Rath backed the teachers in their pay dispute, a ruling that could force the district to hand out as much as $180 million in back pay from an aborted 1990-1994 contract.

More importantly, it contained innovative ideas, suggesting possible sources of funding and urging that outside parties, including Gov. Pataki, be recruited, and soon, to help reach a settlement. It recommended that the settlement be tied to the new contract, perhaps a five-year pact, that the district currently is negotiating with the teachers. And it was greeted as a positive sign by teachers' union president Philip Rumore.

From the start, even though he signed the document as school board president, Buchanan made it clear he was not acting on behalf of the board. "I'm trying to move the discussion forward," he explained.

Maybe Buchanan does not deserve an "A" for diplomacy. Maybe he should have alerted other board members that he was planning to put the back-pay dilemma on the table for discussion.

In fact, he later apologized to the board, and that should have healed all of the noses that had popped out of joint. There was no need, as one colleague described it, for the board to take the board president "to the woodshed."

But perhaps that's one of the problems with the Buffalo school system today. There are too many people concerned with form over substance.

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