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New Buffalo superintendent will face a demanding board with shifting alliances

When the new majority took control of the Buffalo School Board in July, it issued a bold agenda for turning around the city’s struggling schools.

Needing a leader to execute the plan, it selected Donald A. Ogilvie.

But nine months later, progress has been slow, with roadblocks and political tensions driving a rift between the superintendent and his one-time supporters – and creating some awkwardness among the board majority.

Those dynamics exploded last week when Carl Paladino called for Ogilvie’s immediately resignation, accusing him of betraying and conspiring against the majority that hired him. Although Paladino’s move to oust Ogilvie failed to gain support from the rest of the board, others in the majority were content to let Ogilvie leave at the end of the school year.

Now, as the board seeks Ogilvie’s replacement, Paladino’s action serves as a reminder to whoever takes the job that he or she will be expected to follow marching orders – or meet the same fate as Ogilvie.

“They’re going to demand change, and their frustration is it hasn’t come as quickly as it might,” said outgoing Regent Robert Bennett, who maintains close ties with members of the board majority.

And that’s just one of the political questions the new school leader will face, trying to reset the course of the struggling district.

A bigger question remains of whether recent events will test alliances among the board majority. Majority members say they remain committed to their original goals but acknowledge they differ on the best way to achieve them.

“I think the basic commitment is there among the majority on the issues,” Paladino said. “There’s been some dialogue about how fast we’re moving. That dialogue is definitely conflicted.”

Meanwhile, many people outside the system have different ideas, with stakeholders at all levels – from local parent groups and business leaders to the governor – already drafting plans for a new form of governance.

“Whoever comes in is going to have to be incredibly adept at balancing competing and intense interests,” said School Board President James Sampson. “It’s going to be a huge challenge (for) whoever it is.”

Unexpected challenges

Although Paladino’s call to oust Ogilvie failed to gain support, the other members of the board majority say they remain committed to the goals they laid out when they took control – and expect their next leader to make them happen.

Those goals included increasing the number of student spots at high-performing schools and helping to facilitate the opening of new charter schools in the district. The majority also wants to negotiate a new contract with the Buffalo Teachers Federation that would include some changes to work rules and other concessions from the union.

The new superintendent will have to reconcile those expectations with the reality of an already divisive board.

The four members of the minority bloc do not support the way the majority plans to find its new leader. The district posted an advertisement for a deputy superintendent, and majority board members expect to fill that job with someone who can slide into Ogilvie’s spot, rather than conducting a national search to cast a wide net for his replacement.

Ogilvie, for his part, has maintained that he supported some parts of the board’s agenda, but ran into unexpected obstacles.

Members of the board majority have faced their share of hurdles, as well.

Contractual restrictions dogged efforts to extend the school day and offer charter schools space to operate in Buffalo Public Schools buildings.

A disagreement about meeting rules prompted the majority to abandon an ambitious plan to tie school turnaround plans to union contracts.

And the results of a civil rights investigation could ultimately force the district to create more space in certain programs.

Ideological divide

Even as majority members tend to fall in line with each other on big decisions, some have recently stepped across the ideological divide to vote with the minority bloc.

For example, earlier this year, when Larry Quinn proposed adding District Parent Coordinating Council President Samuel Radford as a non-voting member of the board, Jason McCarthy countered with a proposal to add a representative from the District Parent Teacher Organization, as well. His proposal met harsh criticism from Paladino, who lambasted the fact that the organization is aligned with the teachers union.

The board majority came to a February meeting armed with an aggressive plan to tie school turnaround plans to teacher contract negotiations, but ultimately backed off some of its most ambitious components and came to a compromise with those in the minority bloc.

Board members opted to compromise after a disagreement about meeting rules stymied efforts to move to a vote, and touched off a heated exchange between Paladino and school board attorney Rashondra Martin that ultimately resulted in her filing a civil rights lawsuit.

Paladino has since said he wants to recall that vote, but it does not appear any other members of the board majority support him in that effort.

The latest point of contention among the majority of the board appears to be how quickly to move forward with drastic reform efforts.

Paladino argued last week that the board needs to quickly replace Ogilvie so his replacement has time to plan for the new school year, and have a say in the budget and administrative contracts before they are finalized in July. As it stands now, Ogilvie still will be in office to oversee their execution.

His colleagues, however, were willing to let Ogilvie stay until the end of the school year, working alongside his presumed replacement.

“They expected a lot from Don, who was very clear he wouldn’t be around for long,” said Jason Zwara, executive director of Buffalo ReformEd, which criticized Paladino’s call to terminate Ogilvie. “I think they’re all on board with what the long-term goal is. I think there are differences in opinion how to move forward.”

Outside forces

School Board dynamics aside, several outside influences are driving a sense of urgency for change in the district.

Not the very least of which could be a limited time for the majority to maintain control of the school board – and the district’s agenda.

Although he has not publicly commented on the matter, it is widely believed Jason McCarthy will seek a seat on the City Council this year. If he is successful, that would leave an open seat on the school board – and a four-four split. It would then fall to the mayor to appoint a replacement.

After the last school board elections upset the majority on the board and shifted the trajectory of the district, those on both sides are already lining up, vowing to sway the May 2016 election in their favor.

Among the most contentious races will likely be that for the seat currently held by Sampson, who only narrowly beat write-in candidate and former board member Ralph Hernandez in the last race to represent the west side of the city.

Paladino says he is confident the majority not only will retain power, but also will pick up additional seats.

But he could be in for a fierce contest, fueled by what seems to be a growing chorus of critics of the district’s reform plan looking to regain sway among board members.

And the outcome of that race could alter support for whoever comes on as superintendent.

“What’s kind of troubling, and what jeopardizes the long- term viability of this, is they haven’t addressed the issue of a long-term leadership strategy,” Zwara said. “They’re finally getting to a point where they’re changing the district. Will they be able to sustain it?”