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Buffalo schools chief gives openness a try

Buffalo School Superintendent Pamela C. Brown has made a marked effort this week to appear more open and responsive to the public in light of long-standing criticism that she communicates poorly and doesn’t do enough to engage with the community.

For instance, Brown met with the district’s lead parent group for the first time Tuesday.

Wednesday, she launched a “myth-busting” campaign at a School Board meeting.

And she held a rare media briefing Thursday in which she said her New Year’s resolution is to be more proactive with the media.

“I resolve to do my best to update the press, and therefore the public, to those things that matter most to people interested in education and how it works,” Brown said.

Public relations experts said Brown’s resolution should be part of any superintendent’s job description as soon as they enter office, but her efforts this week are better late than never.

Henry Duvall, director of communications for the Council of Great City Schools, said a superintendent’s public face – and ability to navigate politically charged situations – is more important than ever as school systems face unprecedented scrutiny from everyone from parent groups to the federal government.

“I think it’s great that the superintendent of the Buffalo schools has her focus on the classrooms and the students,” he said, “but there is that other piece of it, and you have to find that balance.”

Brown’s attitude toward the media has evolved in recent months, though until this week, her responses typically have been reactive and brief. During her first year as superintendent, she was explicit in her belief that dealing with the media was a far lower priority than her other work in the district.

She defended that rationale Thursday, saying, “I had to hit the ground running upon my arrival here in Buffalo. Everyone is aware of the great needs our schools have, and I certainly felt my priority was attending to getting some things in place to meet the needs of our schools.”

Now, however, she said, it’s important to address “misinformation” about the district.

“I just want to demonstrate, through transparency, exactly what the situation is in our schools,” she said.

Thursday’s briefing in her City Hall office represented the first of a series of briefings that Brown said she intends to have with the media to provide information and field questions.

The event followed a special presentation she made to the School Board on Wednesday in which she highlighted her efforts to engage with parents and tried to dispel the “myth” that Buffalo has failed to successfully win millions in federal grant money.

Even Brown’s demeanor at Wednesday’s meeting was different. Whereas she previously showed up at board meetings and immediately took her seat just prior to the start, she showed up early and chatted with people in the audience beforehand.

And instead of giving her opening remarks from her seat next to the board president, she walked around to the lectern and delivered a nine-slide PowerPoint presentation.

Stephen W. Bell, a partner with the Eric Mower public relations firm and director of crisis and reputation management, called Brown’s efforts this week “a smart move.” He said the best leaders know how to shine amid bad news and low expectations.

“If you’re not transparent, you become one-dimensional, and people can make up who you are,” said Bell, who also spent 30 years in journalism and was an editor at both The Buffalo News and the Associated Press.

He added: “Presidents don’t go into the trenches to fight a war, but they had better give very good reasons why others should fight that war, otherwise no one’s going to follow them. It’s the same thing here. Everybody wants success for Buffalo Public Schools. Give us your vision. Tell us how you’re going to get there. Listen to people who are going to help you.”

Duvall said superintendents need to be prepared to address the intense scrutiny they attract on a daily basis.

Some of that scrutiny comes with heightened pressure to perform, and urban school districts such as Buffalo have struggled to meet the new standards brought on by reforms such as No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and Common Core.

Articulating to the public the nuances of these policies and their impact on the classroom – not to mention explaining why districts are not meeting the standards – can be a challenge for often politically illiterate school leaders, he said.

Meanwhile, stakeholders – including parents and business leaders – are looking for answers and demanding a better seat at the table.

“The superintendent being in touch with the community really goes a long way toward making people feel comfortable, and getting their help with things,” Duvall said. “And it does take a village to educate our children.”

Time will tell whether Brown’s actions this week will yield long-term changes for a superintendent who has long been reluctant to embrace the public responsibility the role entails. For example, when The News asked Thursday morning whether, time permitting, the superintendent could meet with News reporters after the briefing to discuss several issues, the district spokeswoman asked for a list of topics and then said no.

Duvall said the superintendent’s public role should go beyond simply explaining academic programs or policy changes. He said that it should include making themselves available to the public, parents and the media, and working with community groups to see how they might assist the district.

Bell added that anyone who claims they are too busy to handle pressing media and community requests – as Brown often has contended – should schedule time at the start and end of the day specifically to deal with those matters.

“It’s in the best interest of any leader to make time to get their message out,” Bell said. “Again, if they don’t do it, then the media is left only talking to their critics.”

Erie County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw, who has his own public relations firm and used to handle media and community relations for the Buffalo Public Schools from 2007 to 2009, said former Superintendent James A. Williams excelled at getting his own message out and made sure Mychajliw had unfettered access to him. “No matter who was in the superintendent’s office, if I knocked, I got in,” Mychajliw said. “I had all access and walk-in privileges to the superintendent so that no one felt that they were ignored or that their issue wasn’t important. I saw more of him than I saw my own family.”

Mychajliw added, “You cannot have a bunkerlike mentality as superintendent of Buffalo city schools, and I know that so well because I was connected to a superintendent’s hip for two years. If you’re going to engage in a bunkerlike mentality, you might as well hit the road.”

For more on Brown’s comments from Wednesday’s board meeting, visit the School Zone blog at email: and