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Help on the way; ‘Distinguished educator' takes on task of improving Buffalo's failing schools

It may not be as dramatic as the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, but with the long-awaited announcement of a "distinguished educator" to help improve Buffalo schools, the district is better positioned than it has been in memory to take on what has, indeed, been the immovable object of poor student achievement.

Judy L. Elliott, who was long-expected to be named to the position, seems – at least on paper – to be a good choice. She is a native of Western New York who earned her bachelor's of education at Buffalo State College and her doctorate from the University at Buffalo. That's a good start.

She has held a variety of influential positions, including chief of teaching and learning in Portland, Ore., schools; assistant superintendent for the Long Beach Unified School District; and senior researcher at the National Center on Education Outcomes at the University of Minnesota.

Her most recent position was with the Los Angeles School District, where she was chief academic officer. Reports say that the superintendent who hired her was pleased with her work, but that his successor wanted a different approach. The district then bought out her contract, which extended to this month.

The distinguished educator was hired by the state in an effort to help the district, with one of the poorest records in the country, to improve the education it provides to Buffalo students. She will consult with Superintendent-designate Pamela C. Brown and will sit on the Board of Education as a nonvoting member.

Unfortunately, this School Board isn't renowned for accepting outside help. It resisted efforts to bring in an acknowledged local expert, Donald A. Ogilvie, district superintendent and CEO of Erie 1 BOCES, on the specious theory that he couldn't possibly understand the problems of a large, urban school district.

Obviously, that excuse won't fly with Elliott and, while we hope the board will welcome her insights and experience, we also hope Elliott is prepared for the possibility that she will have to work hard at building relationships and ensuring that her views are known.

It's hard to remember when Buffalo had a strong and effective Board of Education. That is a consequence, in part, of the lack of high standards needed to run for a post whose duties are to manage an annual budget of almost $1 billion in furtherance of the goal of providing the sound, basic education that the state constitution guarantees to all New York students, Buffalo's included.

The board hasn't done a great job, and while not all of that is the board's fault – there really are some intractable issues in Buffalo schools – the board also has been fatally unable to resist the temptation to micromanage the superintendent.

That might be somewhat understandable given the deviousness of former Superintendent James A. Williams, but one way or another, it's evidence of bad management. If the board hired someone that it had to micromanage, it made a bad decision. If it hired a competent, able superintendent, then its suffocating oversight smothered his ability to function at maximum effectiveness.

We hope the board will not make that mistake with Brown and, if it moves in that direction, that Elliott will be able to persuade the board to relax its grip and allow the new superintendent the trust and flexibility to pursue the board's goals enthusiastically and creatively.

Buffalo schools are in dire straits. Nearly a quarter of them are identified as among the worst 5 percent in the country, and that list is expected to double in size in the coming year. That is intolerable.

Elliott is arriving here in the nick of time. We hope she is up to the job and we hope, too, that the school district is up to letting her be up to the job.