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Business leaders are stepping up to support education

No one understands better than a business owner trying to fill job vacancies the importance of a quality education, and right now the Buffalo Public Schools are failing to provide it.

That’s scary news at an economic level when projections call for the need to hire 165,000 workers in the next decade. These jobs in cutting-edge sectors are being produced locally by the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and the now-developing RiverBend energy hub, and if the traditional school system isn’t up to snuff then the promise these exciting ventures hold could wither on the vine. Success depends on a viable workforce, and right now Buffalo schools are failing. Even with an increase in the graduation rate at 57 percent. That’s an F.

Such a low performance rate has the business community, among others, in an uproar. New business leaders are coming on board and they’re pledging funds and time to help shore up the educational system.

Nick Sinatra is the latest businessman to go public with his involvement, recently announcing a plan to donate a share of the profits from his next real estate venture to Say Yes Buffalo, which provides college scholarships to city school students. Sinatra and Matt Connors, vice president of real estate for Sinatra and Co. Realty, joined with New York City hedge fund manager and Buffalo native Daniel Lewis, founder and managing partner of Orange Capital LLC, as owners of the Phoenix project at 835 Washington St.

The building is located at the corner of Virginia Street, on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Plans are to redevelop the 55,000-square-foot warehouse space into 35 to 40 high-end loft apartments, aimed at doctors, researchers or other campus workers. The most exciting part of the project: The partners have agreed, in writing, to contribute 10 percent of the monthly profits to the Say Yes Buffalo Scholarship Fund.

The result could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars over 20 years. This pledge is emblematic of how the business community has stepped up over the years to help support education.

M&T Bank’s Robert Wilmers was a local pioneer on that score, making the bank the first major business entity to get involved in the city schools a couple of decades ago when it partnered with the district to open what is now the Westminster Charter School. The bank has since become widely known for its efforts and is the driving force behind the Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, which aims to provide students with resources and support from birth to college.

The John R. Oishei Foundation has also made education a top priority. Other high-profile names in the business community passionate about education include Lewis, Luke Jacobs and Alphonso O’Neil White. As Robert D. Gioia, leader of the Oishei Foundation and a member of the Say Yes scholarship board, said: “It doesn’t take much to get me talking about education reform and what it means in this community.”

They and other business leaders are indispensable.

Developer and School Board member Carl Paladino was the bane of the old majority’s existence, but the noise he made led to the kind of deep examination of board and district practices that had been lacking for too long. Paladino, along with Chairman James Sampson and Larry Quinn, a former part-owner of the Buffalo Sabres and recently elected to the board, represent the business community. They also make up the new majority.

As the need for an educated workforce grows, the contributions by these business leaders continue to be priceless.