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Deciding on superintendent; After School Board interviews last finalist today, it'll try to reach a prompt consensus

By the end of today, Buffalo School Board members will have interviewed the third and final candidate for superintendent and could reach a decision shortly afterward.

Board members have said they plan to meet privately today to try to reach a consensus after the final interview -- a plan that has been criticized by the state's expert on open government as violating New York's open meetings law.

Some board members have said a decision could be publicly announced as early as Wednesday, while others have said it would not be for at least another week.

It has been two weeks since the board announced the names of the three finalists: former Philadelphia administrator Pamela C. Brown, Buffalo interim Superintendent Amber M. Dixon and Baltimore County Assistant Superintendent Edward Newsome Jr.

Because of a family emergency, Brown's interview was delayed until today.

Brown is the only candidate with Ivy League credentials -- a master's and doctorate from Harvard University -- and experience working on both coasts and in between, including time in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Charlotte, N.C., and Richmond, Va.

In an interview with reporters here Monday, Brown emphasized her experience working at three low-performing schools as a principal in Charlotte from 1994 to 2006.

"Each one of those schools was a turnaround situation," she said. "Working with my staff and the community, we were able to develop some innovations."

At Bruns Avenue Elementary School, she said, students demonstrated the highest increases in reading in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district -- from slightly less than 40 percent of students at or above grade level, up to 78 percent -- during the four years she was principal, 2002 to 2006.

A review of North Carolina schools data shows an increase, but not as dramatic as the one Brown cited. In 2002-03, 57 percent of students at Bruns Avenue were at or above grade level in reading. In 2005-06, her final year as principal, that increased to 70 percent.

Her resume also cites the second-highest increase in math scores in the district during that period at Bruns Avenue. State data shows math scores at the school dropped from 71 percent at or above grade level to 43 percent.

Brown said that for the two years prior, when she was principal at the Oaklawn School of Math, Science and Technology, reading scores increased to 80 percent, from 61 percent. State data is unavailable that far back.

She also was principal at Reid Park International Academy, where she started a pre-International Baccalaureate program and French immersion program.

Asked what she would do to improve Buffalo's graduation rate and dropout rate, Brown offered no specifics but said it would be a priority.

"I would want to look in much more detail at strategies that have been tried," she said. "I would come here with a sense of urgency in terms of really improving both of those."

Brown, 57, has worked since last summer a private consulting firm in Marlborough, Mass., called the Center for Educational Leadership and Training.

The month before she started there, she left the Philadelphia schools after serving three years in the upper levels of the central administration.

She was brought in as an assistant superintendent, then promoted to interim chief academic officer -- the No. 2 position in the district, which has about 180,000 students. Brown served in that post for about a year, then returned to work as an assistant superintendent under then-Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman, a controversial administrator who took a $900,000 buyout when she left.

Brown said that, unlike Ackerman, she did not take a buyout. Brown left Philadelphia about a month before Ackerman. She said Monday that she knew Ackerman would be leaving and decided to take another job.

Several people in Philadelphia said Brown worked there during a tumultuous time, when there was regular and frequent turnover among central office staff -- noting that she held three positions in as many years, making it difficult to assess her effectiveness in any one role.

As assistant superintendent, one of her duties was to serve on the district's negotiating team, along with more than half a dozen other people, when it hammered out a contract with the teachers union.

Jerry T. Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said that it was difficult to say precisely what role Brown played in the negotiations but that the contract was fair, noting that it introduced a peer review and assistance program. He described Brown as smart, serious and focused.

"Teachers who have been in the system quite awhile and tend to be critical of people found she was quite knowledgeable and felt she was comfortable in their presence when she visited classrooms," Jordan said. "She didn't interrupt. She wasn't overbearing or officious."

In the last two years, Brown emerged as a finalist -- but was not selected -- in two other superintendent searches: one in Joliet, Ill., a district with about 11,000 students; and one in Youngstown, Ohio, a district with nearly 7,000 students.

Brown met with about two dozen people from the local community at a meet-and-greet event at Waterfront Elementary School on Monday evening, talking individually with each of them.

Maria Rosa, who runs the attendance office at Lafayette High School, chatted with Brown in Spanish about the need to have someone at the helm with experience in multilingual and multicultural education.

"She's almost native in her fluency," Rosa said afterward.

Stephanie Barber Geter, president of the Hamlin Park Taxpayers Association, has family members in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area who are familiar with Brown's record with the school district there.

"She's pretty good," Barber Geter said. "We need leadership, someone who leads from the middle as well as the front, and she has a lot of in-the-middle experience and making goals happen, reviewing and holding people accountable, a different approach than the last person."

Newsome, 63, has been working for the last year as an assistant superintendent in Baltimore County, a district with about three times as many students as Buffalo.

Originally hired in 2011 to oversee middle schools in Baltimore County, after a few months he was asked to work with the district's 24 high schools, which serve about 30,000 students.

Once he took the position overseeing high schools in Baltimore County, he began implementing professional learning communities and started addressing the district's achievement gap for black and Hispanic students, according to Renee Foose, deputy superintendent in that district.

"He is really helping put structures in place so we have processes and protocols to eliminate the gaps that we have," Foose said. "He sees the big picture at 50,000 feet but has enough experience to know how to operationalize it on the ground."

Before joining the Baltimore County schools, Newsome worked for seven years in the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, the last five as one of six directors of school performance.

"He has extremely high expectations and an extreme belief in people," said Adrian Talley, who at the time was the community superintendent to whom Newsome reported. "I refer to him as being an example of a true gentleman. You know he is someone on whom you can depend."

Like Brown and Newsome, Dixon spent several years in central office positions that largely kept her out of the spotlight. While the other two candidates have worked in several districts, Dixon has spent her entire 21 years in public education in the Buffalo Public Schools.

When she was chosen as interim superintendent in September 2011, her two key challenges involved submitting improvement plans for seven low-performing schools and reaching an agreement on teacher evaluations.

Dixon, 59, accomplished both of those -- although one without complete success and the other after a prolonged process.

The state Education Department approved six of the seven improvement plans, although two of them rely on hiring Johns Hopkins University, which announced that it would only be able to move forward if the district reached an evaluation agreement by May 1 -- something that did not happen.

With just three weeks left in the school year, the district and the teachers union reached an agreement on 2011-12 evaluations that the state said it would approve.

Anna Klapakis, a special-education teacher at Bennett High School, found Brown impressive Monday night but gave Dixon the edge as the best candidate.

"I've still got to go with Amber," Klapakis said.

News Staff Reporter Harold McNeil contributed to this report.