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Fresh approach; New superintendent faces many hurdles as she takes over Buffalo's ailing schools

Welcome, Pamela C. Brown. We hope you know what you've taken on, because it's a big job. Some would say impossible, but we disagree. After all, Americans have split the atom, sent men to the moon and walked across the mighty Niagara on a tightrope. Your task shouldn't be too much more difficult than those.

---- We're joking – a little – but that high wire analogy is apt. Buffalo's new superintendent will find herself pulled in multiple directions by a demanding state education bureaucracy, a stressed corps of instructors and frustrated parents. The teachers union, meanwhile, will be willing to cut the cable on a whim. She will need to be persistent, creative and strong.

---- Given the difficult issues and New York law, though, the superintendent's job here would be difficult for anyone, and Brown is certainly a credible choice. She brings a social and educational background that should be helpful in leading this district. But does she have the right combination of skills and backbone to make a difference in this troubled school district? It will take years to know.

---- Her background suggests strengths and weaknesses. She spent 12 years as a principal in Charlotte, N.C., working in three schools. She cited increases in math and English scores under her leadership, though data from North Carolina showed that the increases were smaller than she claimed. She is also bilingual, having taught in Spanish and English in schools on the West Coast early in her career.

---- After leaving Charlotte, she served as chief of staff in the Richmond, Va., schools for a year as part of her doctoral program at Harvard University. She was hired as an assistant superintendent in Philadelphia schools in 2008, then was named interim chief academic officer, the district's No. 2 position. After about a year, she returned to an assistant superintendent position. She left the district last year and is currently a senior research and planning associate for the Center for Educational Leadership and Technology in Marlborough, Mass.

---- The Buffalo School Board – showing zero regard for the state Open Meetings Law – held secret discussions to come to its decision, selecting Brown over Edward Newsome Jr. of Baltimore County Schools and Interim Buffalo Superintendent Amber M. Dixon. In the end, the choice had apparently narrowed to Brown and Dixon, whose welcome change in style relieved some of the destructive tensions caused by her predecessor, James A. Williams. Dixon was also able, after several false starts, to produce an agreement with the Buffalo Teachers Federation on an evaluation system.

---- The board hasn't announced when Brown will begin her duties, but it needs to be soon. Although the district and teachers union agreed to a teacher evaluation formula for the 2011-12 school year, the deadline for crafting a 2012-13 evaluation structure is July 1.

---- Predictably, Brown already has her critics in the community and, of course, Dixon had influential supporters, including Robert M. Bennett of Tonawanda, a member of the Board of Regents. In the end, though, the board voted 7-2 to hire Brown, who will bring a varied background, outside experiences and a fresh approach to issues.

---- That, of course, was also the promise of Williams. But the former superintendent didn't have a collaborative bone in his body, and Brown's reputation is as a collaborator. It's hard to collaborate with a rock, though, so it will be interesting to see how she fares with the BTF.

---- We hope the School Board will resist its usual urge to micromanage the superintendent's administration of the district, and that Brown will give her principals and teachers a degree of flexibility in how they do their jobs. Each should set a direction and monitor for results without becoming pests. Rigidity doesn't work well in education. If the board hasn't learned that by now, there will be problems.

---- Finally, Dixon deserves the thanks of the community for performing well under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. She must, at this point, be tempted to look for other work, and while anyone can understand that, we hope she will remain with the district. Buffalo needs strong leaders and, while she didn't get the top job, that doesn't diminish the strengths she can offer to a school district that needs all the help it can get.