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Make the right decision Buffalo's next school superintendent will have to reform a disastrous system

The three finalists for superintendent of the Buffalo Public Schools offer a mix of strengths and weaknesses that will make choosing among them a tricky task for the city's Board of Education.

Of the three candidates, only Buffalo's Amber Dixon has served as a superintendent, though only on an interim basis and only since September. She has done a credible job in many ways, but failed at what may have been the most urgent matter of the past year: hammering out a teacher evaluation program acceptable to the state. It's fair to ask if that task is beyond any superintendent, given the posture, backing and dysfunction of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, but it has certainly been beyond Dixon.

The other two are former principals — Dixon is not — and current or former assistant superintendents in larger school districts. And, also unlike Dixon, both also hold doctorate degrees.

But of those two candidates, only one is from an urban district — Pamela Brown, who is a senior research and planning associate for the Center for Educational Leadership and Technology in Marlborough, Mass., and a former assistant superintendent for the Philadelphia schools. She joined that district four years ago as a regional superintendent to oversee chronically low-performing schools, a task clearly relevant to Buffalo.

The other candidate, Edward Newsome Jr., is assistant superintendent in Baltimore County Public Schools, a sprawling system that serves more than 105,000 students in 173 schools, programs and centers. It's 2012 budget of $1.5 billion is more than 50 percent larger than Buffalo's. But the district doesn't include Baltimore, itself. That doesn't mean Newsome lacks the skills to succeed in Buffalo, but Baltimore's issues are more likely to be analogous to Buffalo's than those in the county district.

Buffalo School Board members say all three candidates have the skills needed in this district and, on paper at least, that conclusion seems plausible. But the same was true of James A. Williams when he was hired in 2005. It turned out not to be a good fit, as Williams alienated teachers, principals and the School Board.

Dixon understands the stiff-arm approach of the BTF, but we suspect that neither Newsome nor Brown has had to deal with a union that was simultaneously so powerful and so cavalier about its impact on the city and its students. Unless a new superintendent can find a way to work constructively — meaning for the benefit of students and taxpayers — with the union, it will be almost impossible to succeed here. Newsome and Brown need to understand what it is they are asking for.

The district is at least starting out in a better way than it did in 2005, when Williams' identity was kept secret until he was hired. This time, there will be an opportunity for the community to learn more about these candidates before the School Board makes a decision.

School Board members should think about this task in the way that all educators should: outside the box. Just because these three are the current finalists doesn't mean one of them has to be selected. If, after a more searching review, none of them provides a sufficient combination of the skills and temperament that this troubled school district needs, board members should be prepared to keep looking. That's not meant as a reflection on these three candidates, but on the urgency of making the right decision.

Whatever the board's decision is, it has to be based on the likelihood that the new superintendent has the educational and interpersonal skills to overcome a disastrous course that leaves thousands of Buffalo students without the educations they are entitled to have.