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Brown, Helfer split on school remedies

Mayoral candidates Byron W. Brown and Kevin J. Helfer agree that Buffalo Public Schools need dramatic improvement and that the city cannot reverse its broader decline if its school system continues to fail.

But they outline substantially different approaches to the problem.

Helfer, the candidate of the Republican and Conservative parties, would seek authority to license charter schools, take a direct role in the schools' labor-management negotiations, hire a staff member dedicated to educational issues and take personal responsibility for school reform.

The system, he noted, has had five superintendents in 12 years, but student performance remains unacceptably low.

"If that happens in my administration, I'll take the blame," Helfer said. "I'm not going to fault anyone but myself."

Brown, a state senator running as the candidate of the Democratic and Working Families parties, said he would seek the power to appoint some Board of Education members, but only if reform efforts fail to produce results in two years.

Until then, he said, he would facilitate labor negotiations, cooperate with Superintendent James A. Williams and the board, and provide more city funding for targeted instructional programs.

"While I'm going to be a hands-on manager, I don't believe the mayor should micromanage things," Brown said. "I would give the district two years to see some clear results. If I don't see enough progress, then I would go to the State Legislature and request the authority to appoint School Board members."

> Charter schools debated

Helfer, a co-founder of the South Buffalo Charter School and a former board member of the Community Charter School, said charter schools improve and expand the educational system.

"Anything that gives parents more options is good for the community," he said. "Competition is exactly what is needed. It forces change and drives a better product."

Helfer said he would seek authority to license new charter schools, a power that now rests with the State University of New York, the State Board of Regents and the Board of Education.

Buffalo Public Schools budgeted $49.8 million this year for charter school payments, and school officials say the state's charter school funding formula plays a huge role in the school system's deep fiscal woes.

Helfer rejects that argument, saying the district receives $691 million to educate 37,000 students in traditional public schools and another 5,000 in charter schools -- or more than $16,000 per child.

"There's sufficient money in the system, and we have to do better," Helfer said. "Period."

Brown said he favored a separate funding mechanism for charter schools, but "I have not seen anything come through the State Legislature that's going to fix the issue right now."

Instead, he said, priority should go to fixing the school system.

"Our children can't afford to wait," Brown said. "Parents aren't going to wait."

Brown, whose son attends City Honors School, said popular, successful programs should be replicated throughout the city. He also promises to improve conditions around city schools, beef up police patrols at arrival and dismissal time, expand prekindergarten instruction, increase city funding for programs designed to bring struggling students up to grade level and establish school report cards more extensive than those now issued by the state.

All of Helfer's five children -- who range in age from 8 to 24 -- do or did attend Catholic schools, a decision that he describes as consistent with his religious beliefs.

Helfer said he would push to re-establish a network of alternative schools for disruptive students, redistribute money to reduce class sizes, give individual schools more authority in hiring and budgeting, and standardize grade levels throughout the city.

> Differences on Williams

The major party candidates have different views of Williams, who promises sweeping reforms and who caused a stir by scolding School Board members for acting like "a bunch of clowns" and by calling Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, a liar.

"He has an extensive understanding of urban education and is widely recognized as a real change agent," Brown said. "He has a tremendous sense of urgency and doesn't seem to believe he has a moment or a dollar to waste. I like his passion."

Helfer's view was more mixed.

"I like some of his creativity, but in all honesty I don't like him calling Phil Rumore a liar," he said. "That just sends the wrong message to our children and our community."

> Labor relations issues

Both candidates described saving $12 million by switching to a single health insurance carrier as crucial for the school system and said that issue and others will require more cooperative labor-management relations.

"We have to be able to convince people of the need to change and reform systems," Brown said.

"We have to figure out in labor-management relations how we can create win-win situations," Helfer said.

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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