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Board of Education finds compromise on interviews for filling vacant seat ; Deliberations may go public

The Buffalo Board of Education on Wednesday overcame some sharp differences to strike a compromise over how and when they will interview candidates and ultimately select one -- for the East District seat.

The agreement involves having one board member connect from hundreds of miles away by Skype, a video connection over the Internet, to participate in the interviews. Some questions, however, still remain over whether the interviews and board deliberations must be conducted publicly.

The board has 30 days from Jan. 5 -- the day Vivian O. Evans' resignation became effective -- to select someone to fill the vacancy. If a majority of the board cannot reach consensus during that time, the mayor will appoint someone.

Tensions ran high this week after at-large member Florence Johnson sent board colleagues an e-mail letting them know she will be missing three consecutive weeks of meetings, including the regular board meeting next week, because of a vacation. She asked the board to wait until after she returned Jan. 20 to conduct any candidate interviews or begin discussing a replacement for Evans.

That irked some board members.

"No more delays -- parents and taxpayers of the East District have waited long enough," board President Ralph R. Hernandez said.

Evans moved to Maryland at the end of July but did not submit her resignation letter until mid-December. While she lived in Maryland, she attended less than half the board meetings and often arrived late to the meetings she did attend.

Before Wednesday's committee meetings, Hernandez was pushing for the board to interview all the candidates next Tuesday, then vote on Evans' successor at the regular board meeting the following day -- with or without Johnson.

But the majority of the board members in City Hall on Wednesday evening objected.

"I don't want to vote without Florence," Park District member Louis Petrucci said.

Several board members questioned Hernandez's rush to fill the seat.

"I think we should take adequate time to find an appropriate candidate," said Jason McCarthy, who represents the North District. "What's the rush?"

Christopher Jacobs heads the executive affairs committee responsible for the process of filling the seat. He talked to Johnson prior to the meeting Wednesday and said she agreed to have the board interview candidates before she got back to town -- as long as she could participate remotely.

Johnson will definitely be able to connect by phone and most likely would be able to connect by Skype, Jacobs said. Johnson was not available to do the interviews Tuesday, so the board agreed to conduct them at 5 p.m. next Thursday instead.

As of Wednesday, 11 people had submitted resumes, Jacobs said, but only five live in the East District, so the rest were disqualified.

The five are: the Rev. Chris W. Brown Jr., associate minister at St. John Baptist Church; Theresa A. Harris-Tigg, a Buffalo State College professor who ran against Evans in May; Frank Leli, a substitute teacher; Kent Olden, who just finished a master's degree in public relations management; and Rosalyn Taylor, a retired assistant superintendent in the district.

Applications are being accepted until noon Friday.

The board has not yet resolved the question of whether the interviews will be conducted in a public session or behind closed doors. Hernandez is pushing for them to be done in public and says Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government, says they should be done in public.

James M. Kane, Superintendent James A. Williams' chief of staff, was visibly upset when Hernandez said that Wednesday night.

"You're going to do the interviews in public?" he asked.

"Sure," Hernandez responded.

"That would be a first," Kane said.

"What's more important -- following past practice or doing what's legal?" Hernandez said.

Freeman has told The Buffalo News that case law indicates the board's deliberations should be conducted in public.

Jacobs said the board will get an opinion from its attorney before deciding those issues.

e-mail: mpasciak@buffneww.com

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