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Racial considerations may not be as important as overall ability in Buffalo's search for a new superintendent, if a sampling of Buffalo residents at a forum Tuesday night is any indication of public sentiment.

More than 60 people turned out in Waterfront Elementary School to listen to and question David McCarthy, the Los Angeles-based consultant hired by the Buffalo Board of Education to assist in the selection of a new superintendent. The previous superintendent, James Harris, left Jan. 9 after accepting a buyout.

McCarthy and board members said they were surprised and pleased by the turnout on a snowy night.

"It was a good turnout, better than we usually have, which suggests a vibrancy and concern," McCarthy said. "I said we'd be lucky if we got 15."

The questions and comments came thick and fast from parents, politicians and people who simply identified themselves as concerned citizens. The atmosphere was lively but calm, except for a brief outburst by a man who interrupted the comments of Ausar Afrika, another audience member, as Afrika explained why he thought the city needed an African-American superintendent.

"That's racist . . . !" the man shouted at Afrika, completing his outburst with an obscenity. He then stormed from the room as other audience members shouted him down. He refused to give his name.

The flap was quickly forgotten, however, as other audience members listed the qualities they hope to see in a new superintendent.

Few people agreed with Afrika's assertion that the person needs to be African-American, but all said the next superintendent needs to listen and communicate, engage parents and be accessible to them and understand and involve the city's many different ethnic, economic and racial populations.

Jim Anderson, a community organizer, said any new superintendent needs to understand the city's history of racial desegregation.

"The adults are carrying wounds. . . . Everybody's playing the color game," Anderson said. "I think the biggest problem you have in a superintendent coming to Buffalo is you got a lot of adults with that unhealed wound of racism. And they can't let it go."

Patti Duffy, who is chairwoman of the education committee of the 21st Century Club, a Western New York leadership group, also talked about the city's diversity in her remarks.

"We have a very diverse population," she told McCarthy. "A lot of kids have to worry about where their next meal is coming from and have to worry about getting shot in the streets."

McCarthy will meet with the full School Board for the first time today.

He said he deliberately scheduled that meeting as his last during a three-day visit to the city, so he could talk with parents and community leaders without preconceived notions.

The board hopes to have a new superintendent by the end of the school year.

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