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Support expressed for Brown and Dixon 2 of 3 finalists strong as board may convene

Two candidates have emerged as the strongest contenders to become Buffalo's next school superintendent: Pamela C. Brown and Amber M. Dixon.

Each has attracted support among community leaders and people involved in education, each for different reasons -- Brown, for her Ivy League credentials and her experience in districts across the country, and Dixon, for her Buffalo roots and her intimate knowledge of the district.

The School Board is likely to call a special meeting for Friday to announce its selection, President Louis J. Petrucci said, but that has yet to be finalized.

The speed of the decision has prompted criticism from some in the community. If the board does reach a decision Friday, that will be a little more than two weeks since the three finalists were announced, and just three days after the board's interview of Brown.

"I just don't think they have to rush right now," said Jim Anderson, a longtime local education activist. "We should take our time and not just put somebody in place to say, 'See, we got it done.' "

Many others in the community take that a step further, saying the board should scrap the search entirely and start over again, in the hope of attracting a stronger candidate.

"Some people are disappointed with the pool of candidates," said Common Council Member Darius G. Pridgen of the Ellicott District.

"I think most people want someone who's not going to be afraid of radical change, someone who will be able to maneuver through the minefields. If they haven't found the person they feel confident is a change agent, they should start from scratch."

Many people criticized various aspects of the superintendent search, including its late start. The board did not hire its consultants -- Cascade Consulting Group and Say Yes to Education -- until January, although James A. Williams had announced his resignation as superintendent in August.

Rochester, a district likely to attract a similar pool of candidates as Buffalo, hired its consultant, Ray & Associates, in October -- three months earlier than Buffalo. Rochester's board announced its selection -- a former board president there who served as the district's interim superintendent -- at the end of April.

Some say Buffalo shut itself out of the best pool of candidates by delaying its process so long that the better candidates already had been scooped up by other districts.

"The children in this community deserve a far better search," said Rich Lee, executive director of Buffalo's block clubs. "If there's a right time to get someone and you miss the window, but you continue to do things, you know you're not going to get Class A candidates. After years of C's and D's, it certainly seems like we need an A at this point."

Others, though, showed support for Brown or Dixon.

"[Brown] was the candidate I was extremely impressed with, having a master's degree and doctorate from Harvard University and being an administrator in the upper levels of a large school system [in Philadelphia]," said Charley H. Fisher III, a former Council member and current president of the BUILD organization.

Like several others interviewed for this article, Fisher said he thought Dixon performed adequately as interim superintendent, but not well enough to be considered for the job on a permanent basis.

"As interim, we've had a chance to look at her performance," Fisher said. "People wouldn't say she's made any critical mistakes. But no one's impressed with the past year's performance of the school district. Pretty much what she's doing now is what she's going to be doing. We have to find some way to unlock this gridlock."

However, others say Dixon has proved her mettle as interim superintendent. At most board meetings, at least one or two people -- often teachers -- urge the board to hire Dixon as the permanent superintendent, saying the best candidate is already here.

Dixon has won supporters because of her strong Buffalo roots -- she grew up here, went to college here and spent her entire career in education here. Some believe that the person best qualified to lead the district is someone who knows the city, its idiosyncrasies and its cast of characters as well as Dixon does.

She was eventually able to negotiate an agreement with the teachers union on evaluations, which some of her supporters say someone from outside Buffalo might not have been able to do.

"The board should have given her a contract months ago," said Robert M. Bennett, a member of the state Board of Regents.

The third finalist, Baltimore County administrator Edward Newsome Jr., does not seem to have attracted much support in Buffalo.

Several people said they did not feel Newsome was dynamic enough to be effective, with some even describing him as shy.

More than one person noted similarities between him and former Buffalo School Superintendents Williams and James Harris: African-American men, each with a doctorate, each from another district. Eventually, Williams and Harris were forced out of the district's top position.