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Used to making tough decisions, board candidate Tolbert reluctantly loses confidence in Buffalo school chief

In his former role as special agent in charge of the FBI office in Buffalo, Bernard A. Tolbert says, he got used to making tough decisions.

Sometimes that came down to life or death for the suspects involved in his investigations.

“I’m not afraid to make difficult decisions,” he said.

Yet as a candidate in Tuesday’s election for three at-large seats on the Buffalo Board of Education, Tolbert has waffled on what many consider the biggest decision facing the district: whether Superintendent Pamela C. Brown should keep her job.

In interviews with The Buffalo News, Tolbert has changed his stance, stating early in the race that he thought Brown should be retained, but more recently saying that he would vote to terminate her contract.

Tolbert has objected to being forced to take a position before being elected to the board, saying he would want time on the job to evaluate Brown’s performance for himself rather than relying on second- and third-hand information.

“I would have rather not had to say yes or no,” he said. “Not because I wouldn’t want to,” he added, but because new candidates for the board “don’t have access to the same information current board members do.”

In recent weeks, Tolbert said, he has seen growing evidence that Brown is not the best person for the job, prompting him to change his answer to no.

“I have seen a continued lack of leadership,” he said. “Clearly, there’s a loss of confidence. That’s become more crystallized in the last few weeks.”

For many, this year’s School Board election is as much a referendum on Brown’s employment as it is a chance to fill board seats that carry five-year terms. Most other candidates have taken a firm stance on whether they would fire her.

Tolbert, 65, a mayoral candidate last year, has been reluctant to be specific about his allegiances. He received the backing of some county Democratic leaders – mostly those not aligned with Mayor Byron W. Brown – and a Republican state senator and Erie County clerk.

Tolbert’s website lists a number of elected officials and community leaders supporting him, including Democratic County Legislator Betty Jean Grant, Republican County Clerk Christopher L. Jacobs, former County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan, Democratic Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns, Republican State Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, and East Side activists Dwayne A. Ferguson and Samuel A. Herbert.

He was endorsed by the Unity Coalition, the segment of the Democratic Party not aligned with the mayor, and has received support from people with connections to Buffalo ReformED.

Tolbert sought other endorsements from groups on seemingly opposite sides of the ideological divide, including the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and the Buffalo Teachers Federation, but did not get them.

He also received support from School Board members who often fall on opposing sides of decisions – James M. Sampson, Theresa A. Harris-Tigg and Mary Ruth Kapsiak.

Tolbert responds to questions about his supporters by saying he does not want to be pinned down to any one position or camp, but rather would make decisions on a case-by-case basis. He says he decided to run for the board because of the role his education played in creating opportunities for him. Along with his career with the FBI, he has been a security executive with the National Basketball Association and Coca-Cola.

He said he wants to help ensure those types of opportunities for all the district’s children. “As a result of my education in Buffalo,” he said, “I’ve had great opportunities in life. I think every child deserves that.”

Tolbert grew up in Buffalo’s Willert Park public housing projects. As a child, Cradle Beach Camp was his “favorite place on earth,” a place he experienced after a referral by social services officials. He got his diploma at Lafayette High School and studied social work at the University at Buffalo, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He then spent time teaching at Bennett High School.

His main issues are tackling the achievement gap between black and white students, instituting prekindergarten programs and expanding school choice for families.

Bernard A. Tolbert

Age: 65

Occupation: Retired FBI official and security executive for the NBA and Coca-Cola

Campaign supporters: Unity Coalition; variety of Democratic and Republican officials and community activists

Position on retaining Superintendent Pamela C. Brown: No

More charter schools: Yes

More city funding for education: No

Priorities: Improve governance of School Board, focus policies and monitoring on student achievement

Quote: “As a result of my education in Buffalo, I’ve had great opportunities in life. I think every child deserves that.”