In an exhaustive indictment of the Buffalo Public Schools and their continued poor outcomes for students, Robert G. Wilmers on Wednesday night called the system unsustainable and incapable of leading the kind of radical change needed to improve public education in the city.
The chairman and CEO of M&T Bank stopped short of giving any specific recommendations for how to fix the city’s struggling public schools. Rather, he called on public- and private-sector leaders to come together to evoke positive – and sustainable – change.
“We can no longer afford the luxury of critiquing a shared public system without taking the time to lend our individual talents and attention to addressing its problems,” Wilmers said to the invitation-only crowd at Canisius College’s Montante Cultural Center.
“My hope is that we can come together to establish a bold and innovative approach to reforming education in the Buffalo Public Schools and thus improve the future outlook for our children and our community.”
Wilmers’ comments came during a 30-minute address he called “The State of Public Education in Buffalo” and delivered to an audience of about 400 business, political and community leaders. After the speech, he fielded questions from the audience for more than an hour.
“It’s coming from someone who is very well regarded in this community,” said Robert M. Bennett, chancellor emeritus of the New York State Board of Regents. “People want to hear what he has to say.”
During the speech, Wilmers went through a litany of academic and financial data to make the case that the Buffalo School District suffers from years of mismanagement and is now incapable of reforming itself.
His remarks came just hours after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo also called for dramatic reforms to the state’s struggling school districts, specifically Buffalo. The governor said that there is a need for some mechanism for state leaders to step in and appoint an outside organization to take control of the district.
“We have so many different problems,” Wilmers said. “There is no simple answer.”
Wilmers said testing data indicates that the longer students remain in the Buffalo system, the more destined they become for failure. He used that information to make a case for putting resources into early childhood education to support students before they fall behind.
He also cited the district’s inability to properly manage its budget, noting its failure to downsize and close schools in light of enrollment declines. Rather, the district and the city worked together to spend $1.4 billion in state funding revamping buildings that now remain well under capacity.
“The bottom line is that we have allowed the leaders of a failing organization to perpetuate a system of failure and then question the poor performance of the masses afterward,” he said. “It is no surprise that the pipeline to academic success is narrow within the City of Buffalo.”
Wilmers drew from his more than two decades of experience working with the Buffalo Public Schools. He once served on the oversight board responsible for monitoring the district’s finances. He paid for the search that led to the 2005 hiring of Superintendent James A. Williams, who served until 2011.
He also was the force behind Buffalo’s Promise Neighborhood, which aims to support children in the community from birth to college.